When pundits talk about the U.S. elections and foreign policy, they focus on Iraq and Iran. But the third member of the infamous “axis of evil” may prove to be just as influential.

In the last several weeks, North Korea has stopped dismantling its nuclear facilities and has even threatened to rebuild what it has already destroyed. In exchange for providing an account of its nuclear programs – and 18,000 pages of documentation — Pyongyang expected to be removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The Bush administration announced back in June that it would do so. But the actual removal has not taken place, pending Pyongyang’s acceptance of an intrusive inspections regime.

The only palpable foreign policy success of the Bush administration thus hangs in the balance. Success, of course, is a relative term. In 2000, North Korea and the United States were on the verge of a historic détente. After the Florida election debacle, Bill Clinton didn’t have the political capital to seal the deal with a visit to Pyongyang in the waning days of his presidency. The new Bush team couldn’t wait to reverse the Clinton policy. North Korea responded by unfreezing its plutonium program, reprocessing more nuclear material, and ultimately testing a nuclear weapon in 2006.

In his new book Meltdown, former CNN reporter Mike Chinoy describes in fascinating detail how the Bush administration transformed its North Korea policy. The 180-degree turn on negotiating one-on-one with Pyongyang and providing incentives along the road to denuclearization, Chinoy reports from behind the scenes, came about not just because of the failures in Iraq. Or the Republican defeat at the polls in 2006 and the subsequent resignations of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, UN ambassador John Bolton, the State Department’s Robert Joseph, and other hardliners. Or Condoleezza Rice’s desperate search for a positive foreign policy legacy.

The forces in support of engaging North Korea, coalescing behind new envoy Chris Hill, succeeded by fighting back with the hardliners’ tactics. “Chris refused to play nice,” Chinoy quotes one of Hill’s colleagues as saying. “He was extremely careful about not leaving a paper trail, since every time you called an interagency meeting, everybody would veto things. He just wasn’t going to do it. He decided to cut people out.”

To get an agreement with the North that could pass muster in Washington, Hill also finessed a couple major points. He focused on North Korea’s plutonium program and merely Pyongyang’s acknowledgement of two controversial issues: the highly enriched uranium program (HEU) and North Korea’s possible connection to Syria’s possible nuclear program. The U.S. side bargained that it would find out more about these two issues through the verification process.

But the actual verification process was never spelled out in detail. “The verification measures of the verification mechanism include visits to facilities, review of documents, interviews with technical personnel and other measures unanimously agreed upon among the six parties,” the July 12, 2008 agreement reads. “The specific plans and implementation of the verification will be decided by the Working Group on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in line with the principle of consensus.”

The U.S. side is pushing for unrestricted access to all suspected facilities at all times – in part to make up for the lack of inclusion of the two controversial questions in the original agreement. The hardliners cut out of the negotiation process by Hill are also using the verification issue to defeat an agreement they never liked. North Korea, which has always used opacity to compensate for its military weakness, is pushing back.

The way forward on this question seems simple. At a recent press conference in Beijing, Chris Hill said that North Korea simply has to agree to a verification protocol – because a declaration without a protocol is like a single chopstick. But there’s an even easier solution. Washington should simply remove Pyongyang from the state sponsors of terrorism list. North Korea hasn’t engaged in terrorist acts since the 1980s. It provided the information on its plutonium program and completed eight of 11 dismantlement steps. Its more recent reversal amounts to little more than a signal, and U.S. monitors remain in the country. Washington should follow through on the delisting and then proceed to negotiations over an appropriate inspections regime. If it turns out that North Korea’s declaration doesn’t hold up under inspection, then the United States always has the option of putting North Korea on the list again.

The Republicans stand the most to lose if the administration proves inflexible on this point. During the election campaign, the Democrats can hammer home the point that North Korea went nuclear during the Bush administration and Washington has yet to adequately address the issue.

Whoever wins in November, this stealth crisis might turn into a replay of 2000. Détente between Washington and its longest-running enemy is on the table. If the next administration — whether presided over by a Republican hawk or a Democrat afraid of being labeled an appeaser — decides to take a hard line against North Korea, the crisis will no longer be stealth.

The Elections

The Democrats seem to have learned a few lessons from four years ago. The party platform has better positions on arms control, sustainable development, and multilateralism. But as Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst Stephen Zunes points out in The 2008 Democratic Platform and the Middle East, some things simply haven’t changed. The positions on the Middle East — Iraq, Iran, Israel-Palestine — follows the same militarized approach that has plagued U.S. policy toward the region for so many years.

Consider, for example, the platform’s position on Afghanistan. “Even as it promises a de-escalation of the war in Iraq, the Democratic platform proposes to escalate the war in Afghanistan by sending ‘at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, and use this commitment to seek greater contributions — with fewer restrictions — from our NATO allies,'” Zunes writes. “Even assuming that the threat the Taliban poses to Afghanistan and the threat al-Qaeda poses to the United States and other countries require military responses, there is little evidence that sending additional combat brigades to Afghanistan will improve a situation that is deteriorating — not because of the lack of adequate U.S. war-making capability but in part in reaction to it.”

The Republican presidential candidate is even more hawkish on these issues, though FPIF contributor Aaron Glantz argues that McCain’s experience in Vietnam should point him in the opposite direction. “The John McCain of the 1980s and 1990s was a true warrior for peace,” Glantz writes in McCain Should Know Better. “Working together with another Vietnam vet, Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, he helped disprove the saber-rattlers’ contention that Hanoi still kept thousands of American POWs in secret camps. He did this by bridging the gap between high-ranking Pentagon and Communist officials, people who had been shooting at each other just a few years before. In 1994 the Senate passed a resolution, sponsored by Kerry and McCain, which called for an end to a U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam. ‘The vote will give the president the kind of political cover he needs to lift the embargo, and I expect that relatively soon,’ McCain told The New York Times. ‘I think it’s a seminal event in U.S.-Vietnamese relations.'”

American Isolationism?

With new states emerging on the ground — Kosovo, South Ossetia — Europe has yet to take a consistent position on how to address this de facto redrawing of borders. In the 1970s, European countries along with the Soviet Union and the United States hammered out the Helsinki Accords, which fixed borders as part of a grand Cold War bargain between East and West. The Cold War is over. So maybe it’s time for a new Helsinki agreement.

That’s what FPIF contributor Anton Caragea argues in A New Helsinki Accord. “Of course, a new Helsinki Accord could not be reached in a month. The initial conference required more then three years of preparation. But in the meantime we should establish a freeze on the recognition of new states and a general reinforcement of the principle of territorial integrity. In his August 26 speech, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev agreed to an international solution on border issues. The EU must follow suit and begin to draft a new Helsinki Accords on post-Cold War borders.”

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, meanwhile, has been trying for several decades to redraw borders in the Philippines and establish an autonomous state in Mindanao. As FPIF contributor Herbert Docena writes in U.S. Strategy in Bangsamoro, the United States has pushed for greater autonomy for the Moros. “Faced with the possibilities of an antagonized pro-China Philippines or an independent Bangsamoro state with leaders who have uncertain loyalties, the U.S. strategy seems clear,” he argues. “A more stable Philippines — with a Mindanao that is ‘peaceful’ and open for business and with pliant but less subordinated Moro elites at its helm — fits the overall U.S. geopolitical strategy for the region.”

There is much talk from both parties this election year on recasting the U.S. role in the world. The Republicans urge a muscular role as global cop. The Democrats want to revive a more multilateral persona. FPIF columnist Walden Bello suggests a third option: a new isolationism.

What the world needs now, Bello writes in Toward a New American Isolationism, “is a vacation from a messianic United States. A few decades of a withdrawn, self-absorbed, isolationist America, paying attention to its domestic troubles and deterred by the high costs of the continued pursuit of hegemony globally, would be good for the region and good for everybody.”

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