Whenever anyone nowadays ventures to criticize Bill Clinton’s actions as President, Clinton’s chorus of supporters inevitably rises in unison to chant their predictable medley of hackneyed bromides: “Shouldn’t we focus on the present rather than the past?” “Hasn’t any other president ever done anything wrong?” “Can’t you think of anything else to write about, now that Clinton is out of office?” It is as though all the deeds and misdeeds of history are somehow off-limits to analysis, lest the unsettling facts tarnish the image of their golden icon.
The philosopher George Santayana put it best when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Given that truism, there is every good reason to carefully examine Clinton’s — or any other president’s — actions and their consequences. Only then can we determine, in the brighter glow of hindsight, which of their choices proved effective or not. Only then can we use our knowledge of prior outcomes to inform our current and future decisions with greater wisdom than we might otherwise have had.
In the early 1990s North Korea violated its international commitments by refusing to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect all its nuclear facilities and suspected weapons-production sites. When the US threatened to retaliate by seeking UN sanctions against the regime in Pyongyang, the latter said it would regard such a course as an act of war. In response, President Clinton turned to diplomacy and, in October 1994, announced that he had signed “a very good deal indeed” with North Korea. In that accord, Korean leaders vowed to permanently freeze all nuclear activities in their country within one month — activities that included a sophisticated project at Yongbyon for producing weapons with plutonium extracted from reactor waste, and the construction of two large reactors capable of producing fuel for hundreds of additional weapons.
In exchange for these commitments, the US agreed to give North Korea 500,000 metric tons of fuel oil annually — ostensibly to keep the destitute nation’s homes heated and its factories running — though a Congressional Committee report later estimated this quantity to be “almost double what North Korea’s civilian economy can use.” In addition, a consortium of nations — principally South Korea, Japan, and the US — pledged to provide North Korea with two light-water reactors designed in a manner making it relatively difficult to convert nuclear waste into atomic weapons; the cost of these reactors would be about $4 billion. In essence, Clinton believed that offering North Korea a way out of its economic woes would induce it to abandon its nuclear program.
“This agreement,” said our happy President, “will help achieve a longstanding and vital American objective — an end to the threat of nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula. . . . [It ] is good for the United States and good for our allies, and good for the safety of the entire world. It’s a crucial step towards drawing North Korea into the global community.”
North Korea’s chief negotiator, Kang Sok Ju, concurred with Clinton, calling the deal “a very important milestone document of historic significance.” It would, he predicted, resolve “once and for all” any questions of “the so-called nuclear weapons development by North Korea” that had raised “such unfounded concerns and suspicions.” Said Kang, “We have neither the intention nor the plan to develop nuclear weapons.”
In light of North Korea’s recent admission that it has been aggressively pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program and deems the 1994 accord “nullified,” we now know that Kang’s assertions constituted nothing more than a pack of lies. Of course, the very same is true of our own ex-President’s assertions. Like Kang, Clinton knew the deal he had cut was utterly worthless and unenforceable. All it accomplished was to spare Clinton an embarrassing public standoff with North Korea, allowing him to take political credit for something that really had not been achieved — and to dump into the lap of a future president the responsibility for dealing with the inevitable consequences.
Clinton’s posture of confidence that he had struck a vital deal with North Korea was indisputably disingenuous. Most Administration and intelligence officials at the time viewed that country’s new president, Kim Jong Il, not only as a terrorist who had masterminded bloody bombings in 1983 and 1987, but also as a longtime proponent of the North’s secret nuclear weapons program. Clinton’s apparent confidence was but a hollow symbol, strictly for public consumption — not unlike his contrived, hand-in-hand walks with Hillary to church services each Sunday, when he conspicuously flashed his Bible while the news cameras rolled.
Substantively, the deal itself was full of gaping holes that doomed it from the very start. Though Clinton dutifully assured Americans that “the US and international inspectors will carefully monitor North Korea to make sure it keeps its commitments,” the North’s secret nuclear sites would not in fact be opened for international inspection until “a significant portion” of the light-water reactor project was completed. The New York Times reported that Clinton agreed to this delay in order “to allow time to build trust with North Korea,” in hopes that “in a few months or perhaps years Pyongyang would allow the inspections of the nuclear waste sites.”
Ponder that for a moment. A deal that was purportedly “good for the safety of the entire world” hinged largely on President Kim “trusting” the US enough to somehow transform himself from a repressive dictator into a man of peace. (As the Oslo accord similarly demonstrated, peace deals dependent upon the good will of bloodthirsty tyrants — in that case, Yasser Arafat — simply do not stand.)
Clinton further boasted that he had received Kim’s pledge “to resume talks” with Seoul on making the Korean Peninsula totally free of nuclear weapons. Ponder that as well. Was there ever another “pledge” so toothless, so noncommittal, and so riddled with escape hatches? The New York Times reported that Clinton hoped President Kim’s talks with Seoul would help persuade North Korea to destroy whatever nuclear devices it already possessed. Not since the days of Jimmy Carter had America witnessed such naiveté in the Oval Office.
Clinton also backed down from his initial demand that North Korea quickly dispose of its 8,000 spent fuel rods, from which enough plutonium could have already been obtained to construct four or five nuclear bombs. Instead, the rods would remain in a North Korean cooling pond “for an unspecified number of years.” Practically speaking, then, it would be years before inspectors would be able to determine just how much weapons-grade plutonium the North had already produced and possibly converted into a nuclear weapon — a harsh reality that greatly troubled Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch.
As an IAEA official put it, “This means that we are living with a country that flouted the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NNT) and will remain in noncompliance for years. It is not a good precedent to set, if we have to demand a special inspection in Iran or Iraq or someplace else in the world.” How right he was; the precedent was indeed set, and Saddam Hussein watched very carefully — learning precisely how much he could get away with.
Finally, Clinton’s decision to provide North Korea with light-water reactors was a capitulation of immense proportions, an obvious act of appeasement that inexplicably contradicted his Administration’s stated policy regarding such reactors. Clinton had formerly pressured Moscow and Beijing not to sell light-water reactors for energy production purposes to Iran, contending that the Tehran regime should not have access to any nuclear technology. Yet the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians now asked the obvious questions: Why should Iran be prevented from buying the very same technology that North Korea was being given for free? And why should Iran abide by the rules of the NNT while North Korea, which had already violated those rules and would clearly be allowed to continue doing so for years, was being rewarded?
Those rewards were great indeed. During President Clinton’s two terms, North Korea received more American aid than any other country in the Asia-Pacific region. “In an astonishing reversal of nine previous U.S. administrations,” reads the Cox Committee’s Congressional report, “the Clinton-Gore administration, in 1994, committed not only to provide foreign aid for North Korea, but to earmark that aid primarily for the construction of nuclear reactors.”
The lessons of Oslo, the post-Gulf War agreements with Iraq, and this 1994 deal with North Korea share a common thread: Totalitarian dictators neither keep their agreements nor relinquish their power unless forced to do so; the moment they sense the slightest hesitation in an adversary’s will to strictly enforce whatever treaties they have signed, they will invent a pretext upon which to declare their prior agreements “null and void,” and thence resume their previous warlike pursuits. It happens every time.
There are times when having no agreement is infinitely better than having a bad agreement. A signed piece of paper that guarantees neither verification nor consequences for non-compliance, is worthless. Moreover, it is reprehensible for a president to knowingly misrepresent such a document as being crucial to “the safety of the entire world,” winning applause for himself while leaving the inevitable, clearly foreseeable, and potentially disastrous mess for someone else to clean up. It is reminiscent of the September 1938 day when British Prime Minister Chamberlain returned “triumphantly” from his diplomatic meeting with Hitler, waving a worthless agreement that he said would assure “peace for our time.” As Bob Dole said in the wake of Clinton’s North Korea deal, “It is always possible to get an agreement when you give enough away.”