Rupert Cornwell: A triumph of realism and pragmatism over neo-conservatism

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The Independent Online

If the declaration by North Korea is indeed a breakthrough in more than a decade of US efforts to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons, it has been achieved by two things George Bush once derided – patience and multilateral diplomacy.

Barely six years ago, North Korea was famously lumped with Iran and Iraq into Mr Bush's "axis of evil", while the then Secretary of State Colin Powell had been publicly rapped across the knuckles by the President for daring to suggest Washington would continue the Clinton policy of engagement with the reclusive communist regime.

Now the White House is hailing the declaration – albeit six months late and apparently lacking details on at least two key issues – as a success sufficient to warrant removing North Korea from the US terrorism blacklist. So what happened?

First, it is triumph of realism and pragmatism, embodied by General Powell's successor Condoleezza Rice and Washington's chief Korea negotiator Christopher Hill, over the neo-conservative ideology that held sway in Mr Bush's first term. The lesson has been learnt the hard way – after the war in Iraq, whose unintended consequences have been a big increase in the influence of Iran, and a huge blow to American's reputation. At the same time, Washington's long indifference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only made matters worse in the region's other festering crisis. Second, like all presidents approaching the end of their second term, Mr Bush is a lame duck, concerned above all else with his "legacy". In the Middle East, he has nothing to boast about. But with this apparent step towards a resolution of the stand-off with North Korea, he may claim to be a peace-maker who has made the world a slightly safer place. But he has had to pay a price.

Mr Bush insists, rightly, that the declaration is the "beginning, not the end, of the process". But he has had little choice but to take what he is being given by a country that has broken a host of nuclear undertakings in the past – and may be doing so again.

The account handed over by North Korea to China apparently does not address charges Pyongyang is secretly running a parallel uranium enrichment programme. Nor does it deal with the suspected nuclear installation Syria was building, allegedly with the North's assistance, until the Israeli air strikes last September.