The Politics of the Bomb

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President George W. Bush makes a statement on the recent North Korean nuclear test from the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, October 9, 2006.

The first of a slew of e-mailed Capitol Hill statements about North Korea's reported nuclear test came at 8:05 a.m. from House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who decried "the desperate act of a criminal regime" and added: "We stand with President Bush and the international community in condemning North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Il's reckless decision." Of course, President George W. Bush has been standing by the Speaker lately, and no one could be more relieved than Hastert and his staff to see the news spotlight shifting to somewhere else on the globe.

If Kim Jong-Il thought he could take advantage of a President who was down politically, he may be in for a surprise. Osama bin Laden's electronic appearance in the closing week of the 2004 campaign didn't do much for John Kerry either. Republicans, while taking care to express appropriate concern about the possibility of an Asian arms race, said they were relieved to see Bush back in the bully pulpit, wearing his commander-in-chief hat and leading the world in pushing for punitive action by the U.N. Security Council. "Once again North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond," Bush said this morning in the Diplomatic Reception Room, where a row of books added gravity. "This was confirmed this morning in conversations I had with leaders of China, and South Korea, Russia, and Japan."

The Republicans' theory is that their party benefits whenever the political dialogue turns to national security. "The whole thing with North Korea makes people realize the benefits of having a strong President like George W. Bush," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council. "This brings the focus back to the reasons people support the President." Writing Sunday in The Washington Post, Democratic pollster Vic Fingerhut warned his party, "Iraq is a loser for Dems, too," arguing that for nearly 50 years, "poll after poll has shown that the Democrats have very limited credibility with the American public on foreign policy issues — particularly among the swing voters who have a disproportionate say in the outcome of U.S. elections."

White House officials assert that the test helps unite the international community in seeking to put the matter before the Security Council. The action was viewed as an especially sharp rebuke of the Chinese, who had spearheaded the six-party talks meant to try to avert just such a test from happening. So the attention has shifted from Iraq to an inarguably dangerous rogue state, which Bush had put in his Axis of Evil in his State of the Union Address in 2002. Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, predicts that Bush will be boosted by the development, and that advocates of direct engagement with North Korea will now have a much harder time selling that to the American people. "It changes the subject back to national security, where he wins four out of five political debates (even in cases where he shouldn't)," said O'Hanlon in an e-mail, "and it seems to validate his hard-line approach to the unreasonable North Koreans (even though in my judgment it really invalidates his overall record since [North Korea's] nuclear arsenal has grown and now been 'certified' on his watch)."

Of course, having the world afire on your watch has its drawbacks. Joseph Cirincione, senior vice president for national security and international policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the test "raises profound questions about the President's competence and wisdom," and could set off a nuclear reaction chain of testing and development by other nations worried that the arms race is back. "Every member of the Axis of Evil is more dangerous to America now than it was when he labeled it," Cirincione said. "The President still gives a great speech, but his policies are killing us." Even some conservatives questioned the President's approach. William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, said after Bush's speech that responding only diplomatically was "problematic," and suggested that U.S. could have imposed an embargo, suspended talks or intensified the inspection regime.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, aware she may become the next Speaker if the Democrats win control of the House in November, took the high road and issued a statement saying the reported test "should be a first priority concern of the world." But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada went right at Bush, saying the President has made America "less secure" and calling for him "to immediately appoint a senior official to conduct a full review of his Administration's failed North Korea policy." Said O'Hanlon, the Brookings scholar: "I agree with Reid on substance, but on politics, Republicans tend to make hay out of this sort of thing." As they already are.