The problem with Bill Clinton's trip to Syria to seek an agreement about the Golan Heights is that he has convinced himself that his cave-in last week to North Korea was "a very good deal indeed."
Examine that deal. Clinton's opening position was that untrustworthy North Korea must not be allowed to become a nuclear power; he soon trimmed that to say it must not possess nuclear bombs, and threatened sanctions if North Korea did not permit inspections of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, where the CIA and KGB agree nuclear devices have been developed.
But as a result of Clinton's Very Good Deal Indeed, IAEA inspectors are denied entry to those plants for five years _ when some excuse will be found for more secrecy.
Because Clinton backed down, North Korea's first two atomic explosives _ which administration spinmeisters now dismiss as "low yield," but capable of obliterating everything within a three-quarter-mile radius _ could menace Seoul and, in a few years, be deliverable in Tokyo.
That's enough of a mass-destruction threat to preclude a pre-emptive strike by us if North Korea, in the next U.S. president's administration, breaks its agreement to freeze additional bombmaking.
Well, let 'em have a couple, but see how they've promised to stop producing more plutonium: "The entire world will be safer," Clinton insists. In prepayment for that blackmail, the United States has agreed to supply the North with $100-million worth of oil each year and arrange with allies to build _ free _ a $4- billion light-water reactor that apologists claim would make it terribly difficult to produce weapons-grade plutonium, though experts disagree.
But that substitute reactor won't be on-line for nine years. And the victorious North Korean negotiator, Kang Sok Ju, crows that "the complete elimination of the existing nuclear program will only come when we have the light-water reactor in our hands."
Meanwhile, the North's "existing nuclear program" goes on _ including work in sites forbidden to IAEA inspectors. These inspectors are seething at the U.S. cave-in and the precedent set for future blackmail.
Why pay North Korea billions while it retains a secret bomb capability for at least five years?
"What do you want," replies a Clintonite in a burst of candor, "a war?"
But war was a false alternative: Another choice was sustained diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, with benefits to the North only after verified performance. That Reaganesque course was too hard for Clinton.
How does Clinton's willingness to pay dictatorships up front affect his coming visit to Hafez Assad in Syria?
We can hope it is not another advance concession. To visit a nation on our short list of terrorist states is to effectively remove it from that list.
Clinton's visit is an honor long sought by Assad, who spent 17 years undermining the Sadat-Begin initiative, who harbors Iran's Hezbollah in conquered Lebanon and who made Damascus the world capital of terrorism.
The reason for such substantial payment up front cannot be only to prop up political popularity, recalling Nixon's sad overseas tour after Watergate.
No astute dealmaker would throw away the valuable card of a presidential visit. Clinton should have an equally dramatic return concession in hand that would speed a territorial compromise on the Golan.
But that's where his recent, unbounded enthusiasm for the disappointing Korean negotiation is most worrisome. Clinton has just proved he can hypnotize himself into fervently believing that any deal at all _ including one that puts his successor as president in a terrible box _ is "a very good deal indeed."
New York Times News Service