Senate Republicans presumably hope that the 10-day delay they have forced on a vote to confirm their former colleague, Chuck Hagel, as secretary of defense may serve to ratchet up pressure on him regarding a cause dear to many in their party caucus: nuclear weapons.
Much has been made of the overwhelming attention that members of the Senate Armed Services Committee directed to Iran's nuclear program. There has been rather less public attention to Republican members' emphatic insistence on investing substantial new resources in upgrading the American nuclear arsenal.
But we may be sure of one thing. They will not use the next 10 days to fan concerns about North Korea's nuclear arsenal in hopes of derailing Hagel's confirmation.
It was on nuclear policy that Hagel's fellow Republicans have been most contradictory and incoherent. They pressed him repeatedly to commit to a military strike against Iran if that country did not back down on its nuclear program, and -- like their Democratic colleagues -- insisted that "all options," including military, "be on the table."
But North Korea, a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty that has actually tested nuclear weapons, and was about to test another on February 12, inspired no such demand. Not one of the senators who were so insistent on brandishing the military option against Tehran demanded that Hagel or President Obama threaten a military attack on North Korea's nuclear facilities.
They know there is no American constituency to support war with Korea's Communist state. And they understand that nothing either George Bush or Barack Obama might do could compel Pyongyang to abolish its nuclear arsenal.
Strikingly, even as conservative senators stressed the urgency of keeping nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands, not once in the hearing did they mention the one legal basis for international action against Iran's potential diversion of nuclear materials to bomb-making: the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
In fact, the only mention of the global nuclear control regime was by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed. Reed rebutted his colleagues' attacks on Hagel's embrace of Global Zero by reminding the committee that the nonproliferation treaty, to which both North Korea and Iran are parties, also obligates the nuclear-weapons states to negotiate "general and complete disarmament under strict and effective control," a linchpin of the global nonproliferation bargain. He reminded any Dr. Strangeloves who might be listening that even President Reagan in his second inaugural address called urgently for ridding the world of all nuclear weapons.
His conservative colleagues do not see, or at least do not accept, the connection between the near-universal global ban on nuclear proliferation and the promised nuclear rollback among the existing nuclear states. They are convinced that the rest of the world will cooperate in measures to hogtie states violating the NPT even if the nuclear powers increase their arsenals.
They certainly see no logical connection between their insistence that the United States must have a powerful nuclear deterrent -- and another country's leaders concluding that, in that case, they need a deterrent too.
This takes us back to Korea, where the xenophobic Communist regime in the north is convinced that the United States is determined to overthrow it, sooner or later, just as it overthrew Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. After even its closest ally, China, sharply rebuked it for the latest nuclear test, Pyongyang is reported now to reply that it will keep testing nuclear weapons until Washington enters direct bilateral talks for a formal peace treaty to replace the 1953 truce that halted combat in the Korean War and opens diplomatic relations.
Now, a reasonable case can be made for the two Korean states, the United States, and China to agree on a peace to formally conclude that war, opening the door to bilateral diplomatic ties if desired. Unfortunately, North Korea's often hysterical public invective would make negotiations difficult even in the best circumstances. Its insistence on repeatedly exploding nuclear devices in defiance of the United Nations Security Council makes negotiations on a broader peace agreement all but impossible.
This ball, of course, is in Beijing's court. The Chinese have joined in condemnation of each North Korean weapons and missile test, but have assented only grudgingly to narrowly tailored Security Council sanctions. Even if they are embarrassed by their ally, the Chinese do not themselves feel threatened by the North Koreans' growing weapons arsenal. They might see a danger if the new conservative Japanese government were to seize on Pyongyang's belligerence to justify going nuclear itself -- but even that could cut both ways.
Washington's best strategy, in the near term, is to press the Chinese to agree on some tightening of U.N. sanctions against the North, simply to uphold the Security Council's authority, and to intensify its own financial sanctions. At a suitable time, and in consultation with the government of South Korea, it should telegraph its willingness to enter negotiations bilaterally, trilaterally, and quadrilaterally for a resolution of the issues dating back to June 1950, after a cooling-off period that is certified test-free.
For their part, South Koreans should explore what kind of support they can muster for a General Assembly resolution that condemns and demands a halt to the North's nuclear tests. The world body only two months ago had called on the Democratic People's Republic "to fulfill the commitments under the Six-Party Talks" to "abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes," and an overwhelming Assembly majority should be achievable to demonstrate the pathetic isolation of Pyongyang's militarist leadership. After all, even Pakistan -- which once collaborated with the North Koreans in its own nuclear weapons program -- responded to Tuesday's test by criticizing the test and declaring that "all countries should comply w their respective int'l obligations."
Jaw-boning, maybe. But as conservative senators tacitly acknowledged before Hagel, the United States has no options for compelling North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. Nor does anyone else. America and its global partners can only draw a tight cordon sanitaire around the North, sit tight, and wait. Some might call that "containment."