STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
And I'm Susan Stamberg in for Renee Montagne.
North Korea's reported atomic weapon test was condemned across the globe yesterday, including strong words from President Bush. It is the latest foreign policy challenge for the president, who is also trying to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons technology and trying to manage a war in Iraq that remains bloody and unpopular. This is all taking place against the backdrop of midterm elections that are four weeks away.
NPR's David Greene has this report.
DAVID GREENE: All along, the Bush White House has said taking a tough line is the only way to deal with North Korea. President Bush's team has even mocked former President Bill Clinton, saying he and his North Korea envoy, Bill Richardson, proved that playing soft with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il doesn't work. This was President Bush's spokesman, Tony Snow, over the summer.
Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Spokesman): Bill Richardson went with flowers and chocolates, and he went with light water nuclear reactors, and he went with promises of heavy oil and a basketball signed by Michael Jordan and many other inducements for the dear leader to try to agree not to develop nuclear weapons. And it failed.
GREENE: Now, after North Korea's apparent test, the question facing President Bush is has his hard-line policy failed? Mr. Bush has maintained he would never tolerate a North Korea with nuclear capabilities. Yesterday he had to confront the reality that that may be exactly what he's facing.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: The United States condemns this provocative act. Once again, North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond.
GREENE: The president's options, though, are limited. The White House has all but taken military action off the table for now and is focusing on the United Nations. But getting countries like China and Russia to agree with the U.S. on a way to punish North Korea could be difficult. Whatever happens, North Korea has now vaulted into the forefront of Mr. Bush's crowded foreign policy agenda.
George Edwards is a Texas A&M University presidential scholar and member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He said the president may have a chance to improve his image as a statesman.
Professor GEORGE EDWARDS (Professor of Political Science, Texas A&M University; Council on Foreign Relations): The fact that it's now a very salient issue I think presents the president with an opportunity. Because he can appear as the leader of a worldwide coalition engaged in achieving a widely supported goal, which would be the denuclearization of North Korea. No country, as far as I know, supports North Korea possessing nuclear weapons.
GREENE: But Edwards said this won't necessarily mean approval from Americans, even if the actions of North Korea have alarmed them.
Prof. EDWARDS: There is such a high degree of polarization and distrust of the president that people will be very reluctant to rally to give him the benefit of the doubt.
GREENE: Mr. Bush has made foreign policy the centerpiece of his campaign to help Republicans hold their majorities in Congress. At a fundraiser in California last week, he said Democrats just don't show the conviction needed to confront grave threats.
Mr. BUSH: I'm not saying these people are not patriotic. They are. I'm not saying they don't love America. They do. They just see the world differently. And it's an important issue in this campaign, is to how we see the world.
GREENE: But Democrats have vowed to take him on this fall when it comes to foreign policy. Even before North Korea's test, Democrats like Illinois Senator Barack Obama were taking their criticism beyond Iraq and bringing up North Korea on a list of what they consider the president's failures.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Think about it. When George Bush came into office, North Korea had no nuclear weapons. Now have eight nuclear weapons. Iran wasn't as far along as it is now in terms of nuclear weapons possession.
GREENE: Obama was speaking to a campaign audience in Iowa recently. He urged his party not to be bullied by the White House in this campaign.
Sen. OBAMA: What we need is a tough and smart national security policy because the other side has got the monopoly on the tough and dumb.
GREENE: Whether voters agree with this Democrat may hinge in part on how the president deals with this newest threat.
David Greene, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.