- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

So John Kerry of multilateralist fame wants to be a unilateralist with North Korea, agreeing to one-on-one talks that exclude South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, and thus reward a zany tyrant for deceits and threats.

His stance on the issue in the Thursday debate with President Bush showed his reputation for intellectual complexity is overstated, to say the least. He not only abandoned principle in thinking the U.S. would be better off charging in as the sole negotiator, but demonstrated zero ability to think strategically and got his history wrong.

The history is the Clinton administration agreed to a pact negotiated by President Carter to supply North Korea with energy-producing materials and other goods on the basis of a pledge its Stalinist leaders would give up a nuclear program enabling them to build weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. said it would take North Korea’s word it has dropped that program. Mr. Kerry said in the debate North Korea had developed nuclear weapons under Mr. Bush’s watch, but North Korea could not have done had it abided by the agreement naively accepted by the earlier, eyes-closed administration.

As for supposing bipartisan negotiations to be better than a multilateral effort to encircle this rogue nation with other nations willing to join in, think of whether it is better to surround the schoolyard bully with all the guys in the class or to let him imagine all his lies and warnings have earned him the right to confront just one antagonist. North Korea’s neighbors have much at stake, and North Korea knows its propagandistic ploys will work less successfully when it has to answer to them.

Mr. Bush made this point, and in other parts of the debate showed those are mistaken who dismiss him as a dummy who can never find his way in and out of an issue. Again and again as Mr. Kerry complained the Bush administration had gone wrong in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Mr. Bush pointed to past Kerry statements on the need to do something about Saddam Hussein and his weapons and said quite correctly they were no different in meaning from those uttered by Mr. Bush himself.

What to do about Iraq at this juncture? The differences between the two were more rhetorical than precise. Mr. Kerry continued to emphasize the need to get more help from the United Nations without explaining why he has been making campaign-trail remarks undercutting Mr. Bush’s recent appeal to that body to step forth. Opportunism overriding his own understandings and the nation’s good? Mr. Bush wondered how Mr. Kerry would ever bring more international partners aboard in the Iraqi war when he had referred to those already with us as the “coerced and bribed.”

Fortunately, the debate featured no silly, irrelevant gaffes on either side for media types such as myself to hang our hats on. Mr. Bush came close to saying “mexed missages” instead of “mixed messages” at one point, but caught himself. When Mr. Kerry spoke, Mr. Bush looked a bit pouty. But when Mr. Bush was speaking, Mr. Kerry had a “why-am-I-here?” look in his eyes. It has to be awfully difficult to strike an impressive pose when the other fellow is talking, and the attentiveness of TV cameras to facial expressions is driven more by entertainment values than good journalism.

As for further cosmetics, it can certainly be said Mr. Kerry projected alertness and forcefulness, but we have known this articulate, bright man has those qualities, haven’t we? Mr. Bush also showed self-possession and intelligence along with a likability that evades Mr. Kerry. Neither man should be “misunderestimated,” to use a word coined by our president.

Partisans, media commentators and others will now strike up a band of response to the debate, conceivably mangling it to a point where it only slightly resembles what millions of ordinary citizens actually saw. It might be beneficial, as all that is going on, to focus on real disagreements about future policy, such as what ought to be done about North Korea.

On that issue, Mr. Bush was right.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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