Criticism leveled at Bush policy toward N. Korea

Some question lack of one-on-one talks

October 10, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- North Korea's claim to have tested a nuclear weapon offered a new opportunity for President Bush to turn public attention from domestic scandals to foreign threats, analysts said, but it also prompted fresh criticism of Bush's policy toward the Pyongyang regime.

Bush reacted quickly, assembling reporters at the White House for a sharply worded statement condemning North Korea and urging action by the United Nations. He condemned the weapons-test announcement as "provocative" and said the world would respond to this "unacceptable" act.

But Democrats and some international affairs specialists charged that Bush had not done enough to confront the dangers posed by a regime he called part of an "axis of evil," and they said the latest events could deepen public doubts about Bush's foreign policy.

Bush is "drawing attention to an issue on which [his administration is] going to lose, because there is nothing that we can do," said Christopher F. Gelpi, a Duke University specialist on public opinion and foreign policy.

The escalation in tensions did come with an "upside," albeit secondary, for Bush, Gelpi added: "About the only thing that's worse for them is to talk about the Foley scandal, so it can at least have a political benefit."

Multilateral talks

Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, defended Bush's policy of avoiding direct talks with North Korea. The administration is willing to engage Pyongyang only through multilateral talks that include China, South Korea, Russia and Japan - an approach some analysts say severely limits U.S. options.

"The Bush administration has not been very proactive in trying to talk directly to the North Koreans in terms that could really lead to a negotiated solution," said Nancy Gallagher of the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies. "There's not much coercive leverage that the United States can bring to bear that it hasn't already brought."

Snow countered that "there's strength in numbers, as opposed to if you're dealing one-on-one with North Korea."

With four weeks until the election, the shift of attention back to national-security threats-the issue that Republicans have used to frame their campaigns - may only be temporary.

New Foley questions

More voices - the latest being a retiring Republican congressman's - have chimed in with accounts of inappropriate behavior by disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley toward pages as long as six years ago. Bush will likely face new questions on the matter Thursday, when he is to attend a Chicago fundraising reception hosted by embattled House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who is fighting for his job amid accusations that he was either negligent or dishonest about Foley's conduct.

Senate Democrats issued documents, entitled "President Bush's North Korean Failure," that accused Bush of allowing the threat to become more dangerous and detailing Democratic demands for a new policy.

"Distracted by Iraq and paralyzed by internal divisions, the Bush administration has for several years been in a state of denial about the growing challenge of North Korea, and has too often tried to downplay the issue or change the subject," Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said, echoing the title of a new book by Bob Woodward that charges Bush with ineptitude in fighting terrorism.

GOP accusations

The North Korean news gave embattled Republican leaders, consumed with the Foley scandal, a chance to make the argument that they hoped would be this month's focus: that Democrats are weak on security. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and party chairman Ken Mehlman criticized Democrats for opposing missile defense programs.

Hastert, mum on the page scandal, issued a statement about North Korea.

"We stand with President Bush and the international community in condemning North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Il's reckless decision, and we will provide whatever assistance we can to bring this matter to a stable resolution," he said.

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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