WASHINGTON — The Bush doctrine of preemption is taking a beating over North Korea, which is being treated more gently as an acknowledged developer of nuclear weapons than Iraq which, at the other end of the "axis of evil," is only suspected of nuclear aspirations.
For 12 days after Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly received the stunning admission from North Korean officials on Oct. 4 that they had long been conducting a nuclear-weapons program the Bush administration held that information close to its chest as though it were some weapon of mass distraction.
When the information was finally released late in the day on Oct. 16, it was just hours after the president had signed the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Administration officials have denied that there was any connection, but that is simply not credible.
On that fateful Oct. 4, as it happened, Sen. Edward Kennedy spoke in the Senate debate on the Iraq resolution, which he opposed. In stentorian tones he asked: "What about North Korea? They've already got nuclear weapons." A Kennedy staffer assured me that this was a coincidence, that the senator had no knowledge of the bombshell in Pyongyang that day. But it underlined the unavoidable connection between North Korea and Iraq.
When President Bush finally spoke publicly about the North Korean situation last Monday, more than two weeks later, it was in unusually conciliatory tones. He talked of diplomatic pressure, not threats of military action. He spoke of the need to "convince Kim Jong Il to disarm for the sake of peace."
In effect, the North Korean surprise is forcing a rapid reconsideration of the strident simplicities of the Bush preemption doctrine. Robust unilateralism is taking a back seat to a search for a multilateral approach to the problem with North Korea's Asian neighbors South Korea, China, and Japan.
Some of the president's assertive rhetoric of the recent past is being retired. "Axis of evil" is not often heard. Some of the sloganeering of the recent past seems almost dated. For example:
"We must deter and defend against a nuclear threat before it is unleashed." (From the Bush National Security Strategy.)
"We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans." (At the West Point commencement last June.)
"We will not allow any terrorist or tyrant to threaten civilization with weapons of mass murder." (From the Ellis Island speech on Sept. 11.)
Now, in an incredibly complex situation where North Korea asks to be consulted as a member of the nuclear club, the administration talks softly and has put away its big stick.
A few months short of the midway mark in his term, Mr. Bush is learning that one does not live by doctrines alone.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.