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Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Cheney must prove himself on Asia trip

LOS ANGELES "The Ear" is going to Asia, says the White House. The White House didn't put the announcement exactly this way, of course. But Dick Cheney, the U.S. vice president, is widely known in Washington to have President George W. Bush's ear. When Cheney talks, Bush listens.

And so the Ear is to visit three Asian countries next month Japan, China and South Korea, in that order. That's an interesting order.

Putting Japan first is absolutely the right thing to do; it's our long-standing ally. Ranking last the Republic of Korea, which also has placed troops in Iraq to help out, might be suspect except that the top agenda item is North Korea, and China has been heavily and helpfully involved in the diplomacy.

Moreover, South Korea is embroiled in deep political turmoil so much so that a pre-arrival Valium is recommended to anyone with a prior history of heart trouble visiting there nowadays.

Cheney's trip is presumably designed to demonstrate his amazing good health, in spite of his well-known heart problems. It might also suggest that Bush has decided to keep him on the ticket.

That's a questionable domestic political call. First time out, Bush desperately needed the Ear, older and presumably wiser, to dim the glare of his sometimes obnoxious Texas cowboy image. Turns out, the Ear was more cowboy policy-wise than the Texan.

This time around, Bush, who will have a hard fight to garner a plurality of votes and earn a true second-term mandate, gains nothing with Cheney still in the second spot. He'd be stronger with perhaps Colin Powell, the popular secretary of state. Many African-Americans and even some liberals who may be less than enthralled with the Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry, would have a hard time passing up the opportunity to vote for America's first black vice president, only a heartbeat away from the presidency itself.

Moreover, the Ear now is carrying some heavy domestic political baggage. Along with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he is the principal architect of the post-9/11 strategy. The jury is still out on whether it's working, but now there seems to be a critical verdict nearing on the quality of the administration's pre-9/11 planning. The official nonpartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has so far received shockingly negative testimony on the terrorism-awareness level of the administration's top people.

Coming out of his cave to make this high-profile trip, the Ear will thus need to prove himself in Asia. The problem is he has some foreign-policy baggage that will irk most of the high Asian officials with whom he talks. That's the administration's hard line on North Korea, of which he is a creator.

Neither China, which has been pressuring North Korea to behave itself at the six-party talks in Beijing, nor Japan, which has plenty of yen to aid Pyongyang if only it will begin to neutralize its nuclear-weapons capabilities, likes the Ear's approach. These countries know it is dangerous to play brinkmanship with the difficult, testy and well-armed North Koreans. They would surely be happy to do some sort of Agreed Framework Revisited (i.e., aid for disarmament, their dollars for regional peace) with the Chinese presumably offering verification.

But the Ear will say no to that because you can't trust those Communists, right?

Trust isn't the issue, verification is. If the Bush administration doesn't want to trust North Korea, it will have to trust China if it doesn't want tension to ratchet up on the Korean Peninsula.

But that's what the cocksure North Koreans will do and they may purposefully and pointedly pull a few tension strings in the heat of the U.S. presidential campaign to embarrass Bush and help Kerry, whom they believe would be less difficult to live with. Call it Pyongyang's fall offensive.

Doing that, however, would run a huge risk: There is every possibility that Bush will be re-elected, with or without the Ear on the ticket. And Bush is not known for being an easygoing, forgive-and-forget kind of person.

Even so, regardless of whether the Ear stays on the ticket, he would give Bush's re-election prospects a huge boast if his trip results in eased tensions on the peninsula with a diplomatic compromise by Washington that Beijing and Tokyo could applaud.

And the vice president as the administration's primo hardliner is just the man to do it. If there's one thing Cheney still offers the president, it's credibility with the ever-in-a-flutter world of U.S. hawks. In the time-honored fashion of conservative President Richard Nixon's going to Red China to break bread in 1972, Cheney could bring back a North Korean breakthrough and pump life into Bush's international security record.

For that to happen, though, Cheney will have to give heed to his counterparts in Tokyo and Beijing and hear the shrill and conflicting voices in deeply politically divided South Korea. The problem is, does the Ear listen to anyone at all?

Tom Plate, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy and founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network.

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