The only thing missing at the White House last month was the old "Mission Accomplished" banner as President Bush announced an agreement with North Korea to end its nuclear program. This may become his administration's most important foreign-policy achievement if the notoriously unreliable North Koreans keep their end of the bargain.
President Bush's Rose Garden announcement was wrapped in some tough rhetoric, but that didn't obscure his gifts for Kim Jong Il, starting with a clean bill of health in the terrorism department, lifting trading-with-the-enemy restrictions, paying several million dollars for a photo-op of the destruction of the cooling tower at his Yongbyon nuclear reactor and delivering the first installment of half a million tons of U.S. food aid.
The deal did not go unnoticed in Israel, where growing concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions is stirring war rumors.
It's hard to tell how much of that talk is strategic versus political. Recent Israeli Air Force exercises over the Mediterranean stirred speculation of a dress rehearsal for an attack on Iran. Cooler heads suggested that it was an attempt to motivate the international community to take the Iranian threat more seriously. Or possibly an attempt by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to keep his job by distracting attention from his legal problems while ambitious politicians anxious to take his job were rattling their sabers.
North Korea is an ally of Iran and Syria, and was believed to be involved in building the nuclear facility in Syria that Israel destroyed last fall. Curbing the Korean nuclear program won't directly stop Iran, but it holds hope for Israel.
There are important similarities between the Korean and Iranian situations, as well as some major differences.
North Korea is a poor, isolated and hermetically sealed police state that poses a threat to South Korea and Japan, but not the United States; Iran is in the middle of the oil-rich and strategically vital Middle East. North Korea is a monolithic country; Iran is large, wealthy and diverse; Iran can disrupt the flow of oil to China, which gets 80 percent of its oil from the Gulf, and to Europe.
Beyond the economic threat Iran can, with its allies, retaliate against U.S. forces in Iraq, American interests and friends anywhere and, of course, Israel.
Bush's first secretary of state, Colin Powell, advocated continuing the talks with North Korea begun in the Clinton administration, but he was overruled by the White House, which cut off negotiations and declared North Korea part of the Axis of Evil. Asia experts say that Bush's decision to abandon diplomacy directly led to Pyongyang's decision to proceed with development of the bomb. Today, it is believed to have at least six nukes. Iran has not crossed that threshold.
Only after the United States dropped demands for a full accounting of Pyongyang's nuclear program and decided to engage in direct talks — with cover from Russia, South Korea, China and Japan — did things begin to change.
North Korea was not a nuclear power when Bush came to office; it is today.
The administration has been divided for more than seven years on how to deal with Iran, rendering it unable to put together a coherent policy. Vice President Dick Cheney and the neocons have advocated military action, but opposition has come from the top military brass and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, this expert said.
In light of the failure of the administration's Iran policy — it is far closer to going nuclear than when Bush came to office and began threatening it — and the albeit limited success of its North Korea policy, it may be time to engage Tehran.
As noted, the two situations are not identical, but both countries want to shake their pariah status, be treated as important players in their region, and gain access to Western trade and technology. The United States is the key to that for both.
But for the Bush administration, admitting its isolation strategy has been a failure would be difficult, especially if it means conceding that Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama may be right about talking to Tehran. Obama has wisely backed away from his earlier offer of unconditional talks with the Iranians in favor of a more measured approach.
President Bush is an admirer of Winston Churchill, but he seems to have missed a famous Churchill quote. At an Eisenhower-era White House luncheon, he said: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." It's certainly worth a try.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.