the devil, and his due

This one’s been kicking around in my head for while now, and I finally felt motivated enough to go dig out the relevant archived articles.

Shortly after taking office, but several months before the 9/11 attacks and the “Axis of Evil” speech, George W. Bush’s new state department got involved in a small verbal blow-up in regard to North Korea. Like a lot of nerve-wracking moments in diplomacy, it appeared to obviously mean one thing at the time, but has started to look a little different in hindsight, and it’s worth revisiting the issue.

The short recap: After an initial statement by Colin Powell indicating that the Bush team intended to pursue, largely unchanged, the engagement policy devised by the Clinton and Kim Dae-Jung administrations, Bush himself countermanded that position, stating that a full review of relations with the DPRK was in progress, and adding that “Part of the problem in dealing with North Korea is there’s not very much transparency. We’re not certain as to whether or not they’re keeping all terms of all agreements.” North Korea went predictably apeshit, South Korean diplomats made worried off-the-record remarks to American journalists about Bush playing cowboy, and pretty much the entire left-leaning segment of America’s punditorium took this as evidence of Bush’s foreign-policy incompetence.

Well. Heh. What a difference few years make.

So it turns out that what Bush said (slightly fractured syntax and a misplaced plural aside) was, in the strictest sense, true: North Korea was flagrantly violating the Agreed Framework accords, and continuing its nuclear weapons development program while happily contining to take the food and fuel aid which the US and South Korea were giving it in exchange for desisting. Moreover, the violations had been known to all parties since before Bush took office.

Seen in hindsight, Bush’s 2001 statements seem a lot less like reckless incompetence, and a lot more like a carefully considered early warning to a regime that was given ample time afterward to clean up its own mess before the real crisis erupted.

I say this not because I have become a sudden convert to the Bush doctrine, but simply to illustrate a point that I think far too many of my peers miss when looking at current world events: not everything is immediately obvious. It can take months or even years before the actual context around the public posturing becomes clear. The concentric circles of echo chambers that are blogs, television and the print media spin cycle encourage all participants to instantly offer up an informed-sounding opinion on whatever the day’s breaking headline is, but sometimes an informed opinion is impossible.

Consider holding your tongue and waiting occasionally. Being able to say “I told you so” is a lesser pleasure than being right the first time.

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