To recall the genius of Richard Nixon, that is my lesson plan for the day.

Admittedly, it is an act of desperation on my part to search that far back into the darker regions of the American presidency to find a role model that the Bushites might emulate in this time of nuclear saber rattling, from Tehran to D.C. to Pyongyang. But these are desperate times.

Both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney are veterans of the Nixon White House, and it is tragic that they betrayed Nixon’s sensible pursuit of detente with one’s enemies, instead converting to the permanent stance of confrontation favored by the neoconservative cabal. Now, however, we might hope they have been humbled sufficiently by the Iraq disaster to reexamine Nixon’s peace diplomacy in a fonder light.

Yes, Nixon, the politician most responsible, in his early career, for stoking U.S. hysteria about the menace of “Red China,” but who later sharply reversed course as a president, traveling to Beijing to drink mai tais with the dreaded Mao Zedong. In zigging when the isolationists right wanted him to zag, Tricky Dick managed to defuse decades of tension between the United States and Communist China almost overnight. This is just the sort of tack President Bush could and should take with pathetic North Korea, which finds nuclear brinkmanship its only way of receiving attention. As was seen with the decadelong taming of Libya’s once despised Moammar Kadafi, diplomacy can be muscular, and peace definitely pays. That was the essence of the Nixon Doctrine.

Unfortunately, Nixon, who inherited the Vietnam War from Democratic administrations, tragically decided America could not lose face by finding a peaceful end to that completely unnecessary war. But in the end peace broke out with the Reds in Hanoi, and today the Communist menace is mostly experienced as a battle by the two still-Communist-led nations for shelf space in Costco and Wal-Mart. China, which cut back on militarism in favor of commerce after Nixon’s visit, even floats a good chunk of the U.S. deficit — something for which the big spenders in the Bush administration should be grateful. If Bush could open North Korea and get the North Koreans fully committed to the dry goods business, they would lose interest in those missiles that barely get off the ground.

Even the normally bellicose Bush now seems to be getting the point. “Diplomacy, diplomacy,” he chanted at a recent press conference, embracing the word he once most dreaded. “You are watching the diplomacy work not only in North Korea but in Iran,” he stated Friday. Unfortunately, he was mangling not only syntax but fact: Diplomacy is not yet working in either case. Yet it is the administration’s only believable option, and for that we should be grateful. The Iraq war has been very costly in terms of lives and treasure, but it has produced a sobering hangover effect.

Yes, the neocons remain addicted to militarism, but our military is exhausted and the generals are pushing back. It would appear from recent reports, especially the excellent work of Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, that the Pentagon now stands in the way of an insane plan to invade — or even nuke — Iran. The Shiite extremists Bush helped into power in Baghdad would go nuts if we attacked their theocratic mentors in Tehran.

In the Far East, meanwhile, next-door neighbors China and South Korea continue to make it clear that diplomacy is the only alternative for dealing with pugnacious North Korea. Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator on North Korea, is thus reassuring his hosts in Seoul that he is there to kick-start stalled six-party talks rather than circumvent them.

At the same time, however, he once again rejected any notion of bilateral talks with the North Koreans, reiterating Bush’s stubborn position. That’s why I brought up Nixon: If that sourpuss was able to charm the grizzled Mao, then certainly Bush, who excels in bamboozling the gullible, should have a field day with a neophyte like Pyongyang’s “god-king” Kim Jong Il.

Hell, Bush might even empathize with Kim’s desire to escape from the shadow of a father from whom he inherited his crown. As for the dictator thing, no problem: Bush just loves the one in Pakistan whose country supplied North Korea with vital nuclear technology. And has any Bush ever had a problem cozying up to the anti-democratic royalty of Saudi Arabia? Of course not; the Bushes famously give them kisses and hold their hands.

So go for it, George; butter Kim up with some of that frat boy charm. Who knows, he might even join your shaky “coalition of the willing.”

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