During the cold war, western diplomats told a joke about the frustrations of negotiating with the Soviet Union. It was like putting your money into a Coke machine and finding that the machine had not delivered you a Coke. At that point you had three options: you could put some more money in and hope that the machine delivered the second time around; you could try and break into the machine and get the Coke you had paid for; or you could give up and decide you didn’t want a Coke after all. But the one thing that was not going to work was trying to talk to the machine.
For hardliners in the Bush administration, trying to negotiate with the "axis of evil" is like trying to talk to a Coke machine – an exercise in futility.
Given this deep scepticism about the utility of chat, the North Korean nuclear deal announced yesterday represents a remarkable change of strategy. It has involved two things that are traditionally anathema to the Bushies: tortuous multilateral negotiations and compromise. As Gary Samore of the Council on Foreign Relations, who negotiated with the North Koreans for the Clinton administration, explains, the Bush administration has effectively abandoned its insistence on complete North Korean disarmament. Samore says –
I think this was available at least three years ago when the North Koreans indicated that they were prepared to accept a freeze on their plutonium production. At that time, the Bush administration was insisting on complete disarmament. And unfortunately, that just wasn’t an attainable objective. And I think the Bush administration recognized that it wanted to stabilize the situation on the Korean peninsula and avoid the danger that North Korea would walk away from the talks and resume nuclear testing. It was better to accept a more limited practical agreement to freeze and engage in subsequent negotiations, because insisting on total disarmament was simply not attainable.
The obvious question is whether this new spirit of compromise in Washington will be extended to Iran.