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President Bush Rules Out Military Attack on North Korea

October 11, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The president states his case on North Korea and Iraq. We start with excerpts from his news conference this morning in the White House Rose Garden.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: In response to North Korea’s actions, we’re working with our partners in the region and the United Nations Security Council to ensure there are serious repercussions for the regime in Pyongyang.

I’ve spoken with other world leaders, including Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia. We all agree that there must be a strong Security Council resolution that will require North Korea to abide by its international commitments to dismantle its nuclear programs.

This resolution should also specify a series of measures to prevent North Korea from exporting nuclear or missile technologies and prevent financial transactions or asset transfers that would help North Korea develop its nuclear and missile capabilities.

JOURNALIST: You talk about failures of the past administration with the policy towards North Korea. Again, how can you say your policy is more successful, given that North Korea has apparently tested a nuclear weapon?

GEORGE W. BUSH: My point was bilateral negotiations didn’t work. You know, I appreciate the efforts of previous administrations. It just didn’t work. And therefore, I thought it was important to change how we approached the problem so that we could solve it diplomatically.

If North Korea decides that, you know, they don’t like, you know, what’s being said, it’s not — they’re not just stiffing the United States — I don’t know if that’s a diplomatic word or not — but they’re sending a message to countries in the neighborhood that they really don’t care what other countries think, which leads to further isolation.

And when we get a U.N. Security Council resolution, it will help us deal with issues like proliferation and his ability — “he” being Kim Jong-Il’s — ability to attract money to continue to develop his programs.

JOURNALIST: I want to ask you a little bit about — I want to follow on the criticism that you’ve received for the suggestions from Senator Warner and from James Baker, and now Olympia Snowe. This is not exactly the board of directors for Do you…

GEORGE W. BUSH: That’s true.

JOURNALIST: Do you feel in some way that there is some shift going on, in terms of the general support for the war in Iraq and your strategy specifically? And do you ever feel like the walls are closing in on you, in terms of support for this?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Jim, I understand how hard it is. And I also understand the stakes.

And let me go back to Senator Warner. Senator Warner said, if the plan isn’t working, adjust. I agree completely. You know, I haven’t seen Baker’s report yet, but one of the things I remind you of is that I don’t hear those people saying, “Get out before the job is done.” They’re saying, “Be flexible.” And we are.

And so, for those folks saying, you know, make sure there’s flexibility, I couldn’t agree more with you. And I think the characterization of, you know, stay the course is — is about a quarter right. “Stay the course” means keep doing what you’re doing. My attitude is don’t do what you’re doing if it’s not working. Change. “Stay the course” also means don’t leave before the job is done. And that’s — we’re going to get the job done in Iraq.

JOURNALIST: You said yesterday in your statement that the North Korean nuclear test was unacceptable. I’m wondering, sir, your administration has issued these kinds of warnings pretty regularly over the last five years, and yet these countries have pursued their nuclear programs.

I’m wondering if you — what is different about the current set of warnings? And do you think the administration and our government runs a risk of looking feckless to the world by issuing these kinds of warnings regularly without, you know, response from the countries?

GEORGE W. BUSH: That’s a fair question. First of all, I am making it clear our policy hasn’t changed. It’s important for the folks to understand that we don’t continually shift our goals based upon, you know, polls or — whatever.

See, I think clarity of purpose is very important to rally a diplomatic effort to solve the problem. And so I try to speak as clearly as I can and make sure there’s no ambiguity in our position.

And to answer your question as to whether or not, you know, the words will be empty, I would suggest that, quite the contrary, that we not only have spoken about the goals, but as a result of working together with our friends, Iran and North Korea are looking at a different — you know, a different diplomatic scenario.

I thought you were going to ask the question, how come you don’t use military action now? And my answer is that I believe the commander-in-chief must try all diplomatic measures before we commit our military. And I believe that diplomacy is — you know, we’re making progress when we’ve got others at the table.

You know, I’ll ask myself a follow-up. If that’s the case, why did you use military action in Iraq? And the reason why is because we tried the diplomacy. We tried resolution after resolution after resolution. All of these situations are — each of them different and require a different response, a different effort to try to solve this peacefully. And we’ll continue to do so.

President Bush's stance

Jessica Mathews
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
In all three, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, [President Bush is] facing escalating crises for which they really have no answers.

JIM LEHRER: Now, an assessment of what the president had to say. It comes from Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She was a State Department official in the Clinton administration and covered non-proliferation issues on the National Security Council in the Carter administration.

And Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, he's the author of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World."

First, in general, Jessica Mathews, as a president confronting multiple crises at the moment, how did he handle himself this morning?

JESSICA MATHEWS, President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I thought well, in terms of just television performance. The content is weak, because the situation is really awful.

JIM LEHRER: In both...

JESSICA MATHEWS: In all three, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, he's facing escalating crises for which they really have no answers. And the truth about North Korea is that this is a huge setback for us, and a huge failure, and one in which we have stepped back from a goal as the North Koreans have advanced.

JIM LEHRER: We'll get to the specifics here. Let me ask Walter Mead, just in general, you heard what Jessica Mathews says, he didn't do that well. I mean, his tone was OK, but substance not so great. What did you think?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, I think the situation is poor. I agree that the tone was stronger -- the substance of -- the world's in a mess. And we'll probably talk about this more as we get into the specifics.

I do think that the international climate that's been created around both North Korea and Iran is a tribute to some more diplomatic success in the second Bush term than they had in the first.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let's go to North Korea, first. And going back to you, starting with you, to pick up on what you said, Dr. Mathews. First of all, the president was very specific about the bilateral versus multilateral -- what did you make of what he said about that?

JESSICA MATHEWS: I think that's been one of the most baffling parts of -- most consistent and also most baffling parts of this administration's diplomacy since day one of the first term, and that is its refusal to talk to the people it most needs to talk to, that is, our enemies and our adversaries.

The issue is not the positive element of bringing in the regional partners, South Korea, China, and the others, in the six-party talks. The issue is withholding direct talks. And North Koreans are perfectly well aware of that, same thing with Iran. It's the point the secretary-general made in your lead-in piece, I thought...

JIM LEHRER: Kofi Annan.

JESSICA MATHEWS: ... extraordinarily cogently. That's what diplomacy is for, and that's what the administration has been unable to agree to do. There is a strange kind of passive diplomacy by assertion. Do you remember, he said today, "The North Korean leader knows our position." And during the Lebanon war, the comment was, "The Syrians know what they have to do." That's not negotiating; that's just stating and sort of modified sidelines.

JIM LEHRER: "Modified sidelines"?


JIM LEHRER: Is that how you see it, Walter? Is it modified sidelines?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I actually would agree with Dr. Mathews. I would like to see the U.S. more engaged in a diplomatic approach to Syria. But North Korea's -- and to some degree, Iran -- are very tough cases, because if the U.S. were to reverse policy and say, "Well, gee, we really would like direct talks with North Korea," I'm inclined to think that, based on their past records, the North Koreans would say, "Ah-hah! You're coming to us. You want talks. Well, we'll only grant you talks if you do x and y."

And I think it's unlikely that the North Koreans, who have a very long experience of negotiating, are some of the toughest negotiators the U.S. has ever faced -- I mean, the negotiations over the armistice ending the Korean War were extraordinarily difficult, and the North Koreans worked every tiny point in there. I'm not sure that entering into a direct process with the North Koreans is going to get you anywhere.

That said, in the context of the six-party talks, I think we should be exploring the option. And if...

JIM LEHRER: You mean, the option...

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: ... should go forward.

JIM LEHRER: You mean the option of talking directly, if somebody decides that might lead to something?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: That's right. That's right. But I don't think we want to get in a position where suddenly the North Koreans are saying, "Pay a price in order to go forward with these negotiations."

JESSICA MATHEWS: That's one of the reasons you never want to withhold them, because you never want to have to pay that price. You never want to have to make it a concession to talk, because that's what the business of diplomacy is about. The president...


Walter Russell Mead
Council on Foreign Relations
[A]t the end of the day it's probably China, not the United States, that has the most leverage there.

JIM LEHRER: He said it didn't work, though. Remember, he said, over and over again, it didn't work when we tried it before.

JESSICA MATHEWS: It didn't work. This is a tough adversary, a tough problem, and it may not. But the point is you have to try.

What we haven't seen is serious, active diplomacy. And what do I mean "serious"? First of all, if it's your toughest issue, if it's a national security threat, as nuclear proliferation is, you send a high-level envoy. You send the secretary of state or a presidential envoy, a former president, somebody at that level. You don't send an assistant secretary.

You sit at the table for as long as it takes. Henry Kissinger negotiated with the Syrians for 33 days after the '73 war. You stay focused on your priorities.

This administration, when we had that step forward a year ago in September with the six-party agreement with the Koreans, turned around right away and imposed sanctions about counterfeiting. The North Koreans got angry; the whole thing fell apart. Why? Counterfeiting is important, but it's not remotely in the same area.

So you stay there until you hammer out a deal. And most important, you should never be scared -- we should never be scared to negotiate. The president said in July, after the missile crisis, he said that he would not get caught in the trap of sitting alone with North Korea at the table. Well, that -- when you think about that, it's a very odd thing for the most powerful country in the world. We should not be scared of negotiating with anybody.

JIM LEHRER: Walter Mead, what's your take on that?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I actually think it's just silly to say that the United States is "scared to negotiate" with North Korea; I strongly disagree with that. You can make a case that we might gain something by doing it, but I don't think they're sitting around, "Oh, my gosh. Suppose we negotiate with North Korea! What terrible things will happen to us?"

I think really what you have seen is an extremely active and extremely successful diplomacy that has been focused on the realization, first of all, that at the end of the day it's probably China, not the United States, that has the most leverage there, that China needs to take a stronger stand in understanding its own direct interests in preventing a nuclear North Korea.

And I think, in fact, having -- from the North Korean point of view, the weekend that they're planning this test is the weekend that the prime minister of Japan is visiting the president of China, and they're issuing joint statements on the Korean Peninsula. This is sort of the ultimate nightmare for North Korea.

And also, the way this has worked out, because the Chinese issued a public statement calling for North Korea not to test, and then North Korea immediately tests, North Korea has provoked a battle of China. North Korea is far more isolated than it was five years ago. And the region is far more united behind somebody who's very close to the American position.

This is not passive diplomacy. It may or may not be enough, but it's certainly not passive diplomacy.

Negotiating with North Korea

Jessica Mathews
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
[North Korea is] not scared of China; they're scared of us. Technically, we're still at war with them.

JESSICA MATHEWS: Well, it's my definition of that. I don't think you can outsource American national security to China or anybody else, because our interests differ.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: But I thought trying to get others to work with you was the essence of diplomacy.

JESSICA MATHEWS: Well, it certainly is, but you can't do it by sitting on the sidelines, just as we have with Iran.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: But suppose we did. Suppose having a strong regional grouping there is, in fact, diplomatic success.

JESSICA MATHEWS: But, Walter, you know that the issue for the North Koreans, as it is for the Iranians, is direct talks. That's what they want. And...

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: That's actually not true.

JESSICA MATHEWS: ... that's what we've -- well...

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: We tried to negotiate with the Iranians, and they've refused at various points. It's not so clear that that's really what they want.

JESSICA MATHEWS: Well, not in the last...

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: It's a talking point they raise.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask both of you, beginning with you, Walter Mead, why do the North Koreans -- why are the North Koreans insisting that they have unilateral talks with the United States? What's your reading of what's behind that?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, part of it is historical. This has been their sort of historical position, to deny the legitimacy of South Korea. And actually, for decades, the United States was saying that the North Koreans needed to engage as equals with the South Koreans.

I think, to some degree, given the very kind of hierarchical and traditional nature of North Korean thinking, there's something there. I think it's also the North Koreans would like to try to drive a wedge between the United States, China, and Japan.

And actually, this increasingly united front around them is the great strategic nightmare for them. This is actually a very effective form of pressure. And they're grasping at straws to look at ways to try to break up this important diplomatic coalition.

JESSICA MATHEWS: I think all of that's true. I would add to it, they're not scared of China; they're scared of us. Technically, we're still at war with them. They're always asking us to sign a peace treaty to end the Korean War. My view, for a long, long time, has always been to just say yes to that.

JIM LEHRER: Say yes? You mean say...

JESSICA MATHEWS: Sometimes a bargaining chip is only valuable if you play it, you know?

JIM LEHRER: OK. But what do we say? What does "yes" mean?

JESSICA MATHEWS: Yes, we'll sign a treaty ending the Korean War.

JIM LEHRER: "And we promise we'll never invade you" or something, or bomb you?

JESSICA MATHEWS: No, no, no. No, no, no.

JIM LEHRER: No, don't do that?

JESSICA MATHEWS: I'm just talking right now about the Korean War. We don't believe we're still at war with North Korea, and it would cost us nothing. And at the very least, it would take an issue off the table for them, call their bluff, if it's a bluff, or if it's real, show -- sometimes it makes sense and it's the essence of tough negotiating to understand where the other guy is coming from and to give some.

They are scared of us; they're a paranoid regime. I agree: We don't know that it would work. And, in fact, things have gotten so much worse in the last several years that nothing may work right now.

JIM LEHRER: Who knows what will work?

Next steps in Iraq

Walter Russell Mead
Council on Foreign Relations
I think the learning experience of the complexity of war is continuing, and the White House is probably far more open to a range of approaches on Iraq than they've been.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Let's go to Iraq. Walter Mead, to you first. Did you hear anything new from the president today on Iraq?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think we are hearing an increasing emphasis on flexibility. And they're certainly -- you know, it made headlines the first time the president said, "When you make a mistake, you need to learn from it and respond." Now that's kind of boilerplate in his appearances.

So I think the learning experience of the complexity of war is continuing, and the White House is probably far more open to a range of approaches on Iraq than they've been.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way?

JESSICA MATHEWS: I think we're beyond that. I think what the American people are wondering is whether we are in this because some kind of a victory is possible or whether we're in this to avoid a catastrophic loss.

And, you know, the definition of victory has changed over the years, has kind of walked down the hill, from democratic tsunami across the Middle East to at least a country that can hang together and defend itself. Now, today, it seemed to be avoiding catastrophe and avoiding terrorists coming here, which is a whole other question.

We have certainly had no lack of different policies over there, as one after another hasn't ended the violence. And I think the truth is none of them will. The violence has reached a level where it's self-reinforcing, and will have to play itself out.

JIM LEHRER: Walter Mead, Bob Woodward's book, of course, the title is "State of Denial." Listening to the president closely today, did you find him in a state of denial on Iraq?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: You know, I'm not a good enough psychologist to...

JIM LEHRER: Well, just on the facts. OK, just on the facts.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: No, no, I think he's well aware of the political difficulties at home, on the policy difficulties in Iraq. It's clear that some of the statements that were made about the priorities they have with the Iraqi government and cleaning up some of the problems with various interior ministry groups show that they understand what the problems are. Now, whether they've got solutions to them is another issue, but they do seem to be focused on real things, rather than singing happy songs.

It was also interesting, if you looked closely at the statement, when he was defining -- when the president was defining his goal in Iraq, he talked about a government that's able to defend herself -- I think Dr. Mathews was pointing out some of this a little earlier -- a state that can defend itself, a state that can hang together.

Democracy was not used in the description of the end state that he desires. He referred many times to Iraq as a young democracy that needed protection, but his definition of victory did not include the word "democracy," and that's an interesting change. I don't know if it's just semantic or real?

JIM LEHRER: Do you see that as a change, Dr. Mathews?

JESSICA MATHEWS: I think it perhaps reflects reality a bit, but I don't put too much -- I think that where we are as a country with this issue now is kind of waiting for the end game and seeing if there isn't a way to end this dismal situation without tearing the country apart the way we did in Vietnam. And that when we finally...

JIM LEHRER: You mean end the violence, end the killing on the ground?

JESSICA MATHEWS: I mean in the ending of it for us.


JESSICA MATHEWS: It's a terrible thing to say, although it was one of the reasons I was opposed to this war before it started, because I thought it was predictable that it would ultimately be more about American domestic politics than it would be about Iraq, and I think it has been every step along the way.

And that the key is that we come to a national agreement about whether we've won or lost and what to do about it that doesn't tear us apart for a generation the way Vietnam did.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that's where we are, Walter Mead?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, again, I think it's not just a question at this point of -- you know, at the end of the day, Vietnam was a place that we could leave. And that is to say, you know, our collapse in Vietnam was as humiliating, and disgraceful, and tragic as it could have been, even if it might have been inevitable politically. But Vietnam was not central to American interests. The fact that...

JESSICA MATHEWS: We certainly thought so at the time.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: ... some possible end states in Iraq could end with forces very hostile to the United States, controlling Iraqi oil -- kind of a Taliban with oil is a rather distressing concept.

And so I think there'll probably be -- even when Americans are no longer thinking what a beautiful future we're going to have for Iraq, there may be a reservoir of political determination not to allow something too terrible to happen there.

JIM LEHRER: All right. We have to leave it there. Jessica Mathews, Walter Mead, thank you both very much.