Press Secretary Dana Perino was asked today about a rumor percolating below the surface in Washington, speculation that President Bush, just before he leaves office, will turn out the lights on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The further subtext: If the White House won’t end Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nuclear program, the Israelis will.
Friday, the New York Times reported that Israel had conducted exercises — with more than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 jets — in what U.S. officials said looked like a dress rehearsal. Sunday the Israeli newspaper Maariv called the story a Pentagon leak designed “to deter Iran and increase pressure on it to cooperate” with international nuclear watchdogs.
Back at the White House, Perino said speculation was being fueled more by the news media than any evidence.
“And what I can tell you is that President Bush believes that we can solve this issue diplomatically, and that everyone’s preference is to solve it diplomatically,” she said, “not just here in the United States but with our allies and certainly with Israel.”
North Korea says it plans to blow up the cooling tower of its Yongbyon nuclear plant, the one used to produce plutonium to build atomic bombs, possibly as early as Friday.
That highly dramatic, televised act would speak to the North Koreans’ commitment to stop building nuclear weapons, the culmination of 17 months of intensive Bush administration diplomatic efforts.
You can see where all this potentially points. Cable news would run endless slo-mo of the crumbling cooling tower as b-roll to Bush’s proclamation that his administration succeeded in heading off one of the leading threats to world peace. For Bush, it would be a rare foreign policy victory. It could even stand as a top legacy of his administration.
But it may be too soon to unfurl the “Mission Accomplished” banner.
First, much of this may not come to pass. After all, it depends on the notoriously unpredictable North Korean regime. Second, if it did, its true meaning and value may not be known for months or years.
The background: In a speech at the Heritage Foundation June 18, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began elevating expectations of progress in long-stalled “six-party” de-nuclearization talks between the U.S., North and South Korea, Russia, China and Japan. Very soon, she said, the North Koreans would provide a formal declaration about its nuclear stockpile that U.S. officials expected to see as long ago as last December. The White House said the declaration could be given to the Chinese, who chair the six-party talks, as early as today.
At the same time, North Korea has begun issuing invitations to its planned destruction of the cooling tower at Yongbyon, which was idled as a result of the six-party talks.
If it all happens as scripted, the Bush administration would move to take North Korea off its list of state sponsors of terrorism and start easing U.S. sanctions.
Many conservatives angrily oppose this strategy, believing North Korea can’t be trusted. Many liberals have openly expressed smugness, believing Bush was wrong seven years ago to upend a deal worked out between the Clinton administration and North Korea.
Meanwhile, the definition of success grows smaller as it grows nearer.
The expected North Korean declaration probably won’t deal with two big Bush administration concerns: That Pyongyang has operated a secret uranium enrichment program, in addition to its plutonium program; and that North Korea helped build the alleged Syrian nuclear plant that was bombed last September by Israel.