President Bush’s press conference on John Bolton: missing the point
By Ralph A. Cossa
Global Beat Syndicate
YANGPYUNG, South Korea—During his spirited press conference defense of his UN ambassador nominee, John Bolton, President George W. Bush said “it makes sense to put somebody who’s skilled and who is not afraid to speak his mind at the United Nations.” He misses the point.
The biggest problem with Mr. Bolton is that he does just that—speaks his mind, with emphasis on “his.” As an undersecretary of state these past four years, Mr. Bolton was supposed to be speaking then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s and his department’s mind, not his own. Yet the tales of his open disagreements with, and his several efforts to try to undermine, State Department policy are legend. Should he get confirmed, Secretary of State Condelezza Rice will have her hands full trying to keep Bolton “on message.”
That said, I owe Mr. Bolton an apology. Several years ago I described him as “America’s most undiplomatic diplomat.” That was incorrect. The title must go to our diplomat-in-chief, President Bush, who earned it, once again, during the same April 28 press conference in which he defended the Bolton nomination.
During this internationally televised event, President Bush expressed his commitment to a diplomatic solution to the North Korea nuclear crisis, citing in particular the need for consensus among the other five participants in order to bring Pyongyang to the table. But he could not resist throwing in a gratuitous personal attack against North Korea’s leader, calling him “a dangerous person . . . who starves his people” and “a tyrant.”
President Bush no doubt believes all this; it has the added benefit of being true. But to repeatedly say such things publicly undermines the diplomatic process, especially at a time when his chief negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, was visiting China, Japan and South Korea to build the consensus that the president himself acknowledged was critical for his diplomatic approach to succeed.
The primary concern here is not what North Korea thinks, but rather the impact such statements are having on the other dialogue partners: China, Japan, Russia, and most importantly, South Korea. As the president has repeatedly stressed, all need to stick together and speak with one voice in pressuring Pyongyang to come back to the table. For this to happen, they have to believe that Washington is seriously committed to achieving a negotiated solution.
While traveling through five South Korean cities, speaking to college students and professors, security specialists, and non-governmental organization representatives over the past week, I have met few people who believe that the Bush administration is serious when it says it is prepared to deal with the current leadership in Pyongyang. Reinforcing this view, at a recent Pacific Forum conference on U.S.-South Korea relations, a group of about 40 American, Korean, Chinese and Japanese regional specialists were asked how many believed that the Bush administration was actually pursuing regime change and would not negotiate with Kim Jong-il under any circumstances. More than 90% raised their hands; this despite the fact that it is the stated position of the Bush administration, reiterated by President Bush, Secretary Rice, and yes, even by John Bolton, that it does not seek regime change in North Korea.
Our president’s repeated personal attacks lead the man on the street (especially in Korea) and the seasoned security analyst alike to the same conclusion: Washington’s aim is to drive North Korea away from the negotiating table. This makes gaining an international consensus increasingly difficult to achieve.
If President Bush truly wants a diplomatic solution, he must surround himself with true diplomats—and he must speak and act diplomatically himself. Otherwise, he will not only lose the diplomatic stand-off with North Korea but will lose the hearts and minds of the South Korean people as well.