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Thursday, April 22, 2004

George Bush needs a new Ear

LOS ANGELES -- What did "the Ear" hear on his recent trip to Asia?

Selective stops in Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul suggest that one point of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's diplomatic excursion was North Korea. Another was the fluffed-up condition of the Chinese currency, the international market value of which is being kept low by Beijing in order to keep high the country's vast export sales.

We have in the past unceremoniously tabbed Cheney the Ear, because it's well known that he has the president's, or at least one of them. (Presumably the other is shared by his wife Laura and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.)

From the Chinese, certainly, the Ear heard that their currency's value would at some time be adjusted upward, as the Bush administration has been urging -- but perhaps not in time for the November U.S. presidential election, whose outcome may or may not hang on Democratic demagoguery about basically phony issues such as the $100 billion-plus trade deficit with China and the outsourcing of jobs to India.

The Ear probably heard directly from a polite President Hu Jintao himself that, as much as Beijing wished to maximize the bilateral relationship, the Chinese currency would be decoupled from the dollar only when it became in China's national interest to do so. (Isn't it funny how countries -- France, Germany, Spain or China -- tend to act in their own perceived national interest?)

Also in Asia, the Ear undoubtedly heard (if he was in fact listening) that the region is not enamored with Washington's hard line on North Korea. It would prefer to get out of the North Korean nuclear box with a gradual, face-saving, step-by-step negotiation backed with development aid and technical support for desperately needed internal economic reform.

Presumably Kim Jong Il, North Korea's "Dear Leader," is hearing that message as well during his unusual visit this week to Beijing. The increasingly pragmatic Chinese are pretty much fed up with the North's hard line and slow reform pace as well.

For a Bush administration so bogged down in Baghdad, not to mention the cascading terrorism mess (note that the new Spanish government, which owes its recent election to the deadly Madrid attacks by al-Qaeda, is pulling its token troops out of Iraq), the hard line is a bit of a puzzle. Such a stance only makes sense if Washington is truly prepared to negotiate rather than continue to postulate.

Let's hope the Ear's nose is more sensitive to geopolitics than it appears to be to economics. His flagellation of Chinese monetary policy conceptually stinks. Rather than pressure the Hu Jintao government into policies that may roil its national interest (why is it that China is not massively unhappy with peddling massive volumes of exports, to the United States and elsewhere, that bring home lots of foreign revenue?), perhaps the vice president should go on the domestic stump to persuade U.S. consumers to stop purchasing lower priced Chinese goods in favor of higher priced ones. But would Americans buy such a pitch from the Ear? After all, higher consumer prices would notch up the cost of living and help fuel inflation, handing the Democrats another hot issue. Perhaps the Ear might want to bend a little on this complicated currency stuff.

Speaking of getting the bends, given the apparent reincarnation of the Roh Moo Hyun government in Seoul (the Ear's last stop on the trip), might not the U.S. at the end of the day want to bend a tad on the North Korean issue before war threatens to break out on the Peninsula?

Certainly, the Bush administration's credibility on issues such as punishing foreign countries when they don't do exactly what the U.S. requires is not at an all-time high.

In "Plan of Attack," the latest blockbuster by Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, the vice president is depicted as an un-listening hawk on Iraq, whispering almost constantly into the president's ear, and well out of the hearing range of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who reportedly had a different view on the invasion. Funny, Powell, a decorated army officer, was very un-gung-ho.

Cheney apparently didn't want Bush to hear such wimpy stuff; besides, the Ear prefers that the president listen only to him and other hawkish voices. In fact, Cheney is described by Woodward as a "powerful, streamlining force" for military intervention, "a rock" (as Bush is precisely quoted) who was "steadfast and steady in his view that Saddam was a threat to America and we had to deal with him."

That appears to be the Ear's view on the North Korea's Kim, too. Sure, the moral fiber of the current Pyongyang regime may be comparable to that of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But is North Korea a serious military threat to the U.S.? I think not.

If the president is listening to the Ear yet again, God help us all; perhaps Bush might want to start listening to Powell, that silly dove. After all, whose instincts look to have been more right about Iraq?

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network and the UCLA Media Center. Copyright Tom Plate

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