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Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Of Nuts with Nukes, and Lesser, Local Things

I look for principles, patterns, and parallels in government and politics. Even if the scale and some essential attitudes are radically different, I think I see a similarity between US attempts to restrain North Korea's nuclear aspirations and the impotence of American Fork's boundary agreement with Pleasant Grove. I fear the explanation is somewhat lengthy.

North Korea's Unsurprising Big Bang

It has now been more than 48 hours since I awoke Monday morning to news that the North Korean government had tested a nuclear bomb. At that point, the US was still trying to confirm it, because the this particular test was underground in North Korea, not above ground over San Francisco. (An underground detonation produces no mushroom cloud or visible flash, just a bit of an earthquake and perhaps some mild local radiation.)

Obviously, for lovers of peace and sanity this is troubling news. But anyone who claims to be surprised by it either has not been paying attention to the world for the past few decades or is trying to distract us from something else. It has been 61 years since the United States ended Japan's participation in World War II with a pair of atomic bombs. For most of those decades North Korea has had close ties with the Communist regime in China, one of the world's nuclear powers. It also had some ties with the late Soviet Union, which fairly bristled with nukes. Moreover, detailed instructions for building nuclear weapons have been readily available for a long time, even on the World Wide Web. If lowly Pakistan, which is not one of the world's great economic, military, or scientific powers, can develop nuclear weapons, why would we think that North Korea cannot, with or without the technology we foolishly gave them during the Clinton years? (Now there's a legacy.) In fact, Pakistan seems to have been one of North Korea's conduits for nuclear material and information.

The threat would be less severe if it involved North Korea alone. It is only a matter of time before Iran acquires one or more nuclear weapons from North Korea -- and that's if no other nuclear nation will provide them, and if Iran does not develop its own. Once Iran has nukes, if its current regime survives, we may expect to see either Iran itself or one of its terrorist surrogates use a nuke on Tel Aviv or some US installation or city.

Such situations are the major reason why, despite some serious frustrations, I have rejoiced in recent years that there are adults in the White House again, and why I will hold my nose, suppress my gag reflex, and vote for John McCain, if he happens to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.

Murdering the Queen's English

My own lack of surprise at Monday's development is underscored by this silly little fact: My strongest reaction to it all, especially after hearing President Bush speak, is to wonder why so many US presidents seem constitutionally incapable of pronouncing the word nuclear properly. Admittedly, President Bush does not make the comic hash of the word that President Carter made. But has he no staffer who is willing to remind him before he goes on live television, "Mr. President, it's 'nuclear', not 'nucular'"?

Given the long-term BMA and Democratic campaign to make President Bush look stupid, even though his grades at Yale were better than John Kerry's, I don't see how he can afford politically to do things which reinforce that false image.

Nuclear. Nu-cle-ar.

Fingers Are for Pointing, But . . .

But back to the non-trivial. At such times, the temptation to point fingers is almost irresistible. We negotiate in good faith with people who do not intend and cannot reasonably be expected to keep their word. How naive and absurd is that? Of what use is a treaty concluded with a party which intends, openly or secretly, to violate it as soon as compliance becomes inconvenient? Why do we place ourselves at such a disadvantage, over and over again -- not just with North Korea, but with Iran, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the former Soviet Union, the PLO, and other regimes which are perfectly delighted to use our good faith as a weapon against us?

We institutionalize our folly on the national and international levels. Monday the United Nations was dithering more frenetically than usual, talking about producing yet another resolution which won't work, just as the last one involving North Korea didn't work. I'm too cynical to believe that the United Nations, the US State Department, and the Democratic Party are simply naive. I think they engage in symbolism without substance partly out of misguided faith in diplomacy, to be sure, but largely because their goals are not what they profess. For the most part, the United Nations welcomes the rise of any rival, threat, or embarrassment to the United States, and many prominent Democrats in government welcome whatever might be bad for the Bush Administration or Republicans generally. Unfortunately, much of what is bad for this president is also bad for the country, but what is national security or the general welfare, really, next to partisan political advantage?

Yet we who live in glass houses should hesitate to throw stones, because we do the same thing at the local level. Here is a current example.

Those Pesky Boundary Agreements

Please note: Here I compare leaders' attitudes only. I am not comparing Pleasant Grove to North Korea in any substantive way. So far as I am aware, Pleasant Grove is not governed by one of the world's leading nut jobs. Nor are its people starving in abject poverty. Nor do I suspect its government of developing nuclear weapons to increase their standing among Utah's cities. I don't anticipate they will someday reduce Art Dye Park to a glowing crater. No comparison is perfect.

In 1979 American Fork and Pleasant Grove entered a boundary agreement, which American Fork Mayor Heber Thompson last night called "very weak." Blame whom you will, but the agreement has largely been honored in the breach, as the saying goes. I can't say for certain whether each successive American Fork administration has simply been outfoxed by our eastern neighbor, or whether some of them might have known what they were doing but have been unwilling to enforce the agreement for other reasons. In any case, by the Mayor's account, American Fork has not stood its ground and has allowed the agreement to be ignored, mostly to American Fork's detriment. The 1979 agreement is now a textbook example of a legal principle I have mentioned here before: If a law historically has not been enforced, it no longer exists as an enforceable law, no matter what the ink on the paper actually says. (See my application of this principle to illegal immigration.)

Mayor Thompson expressed his expectation last evening that we will soon have a new, comprehensive boundary agreement with Pleasant Grove. The same City Council meeting featured a vigorous debate of a related, but specific and limited, development agreement Mayor Thompson recently negotiated with Pleasant Grove Mayor Mike Daniels. It involves the annexation into Pleasant Grove of some unincorporated land on American Fork's southeast border.

Before we proceed to some local political considerations, please note the similarity between US negotiations with North Korea and American Fork's 1979 boundary agreement with Pleasant Grove. Naive reliance on the other party's good faith, especially when it is contrary to both logic and history, is not a sufficient enforcement mechanism in an arena of competing interests. For that matter, a "gentleman's agreement" -- to use a phrase I heard last night at the meeting -- is only valuable as long as all parties conduct themselves as gentlemen. In the political world, how likely is that? It is entirely predictable that, when one party negotiates and acts in good faith and the other doesn't, the advantage will go to the latter. But even in the absence of ill will, why should one city be expected to discern and defend another city's interests, if the latter doesn't stand up for itself?

In Ronald Reagan's famous formulation, the operative principle here is "trust but verify." The same principle appears in the New Testament; the translation I prefer is, "Be ye therefore cunning as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). In the local culture, yet another version seems to resonate: "This is not the Relief Society."

Last night I wanted to, but didn't, ask the Mayor and Council this question:

The 1979 boundary agreement has been approximately as effective as US negotiations aimed at terminating North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Now North Korea is detonating nukes. What is different now from the past in the way American Fork City does business, or what do you still need to change and when will you change it, to make a new boundary agreement effective where the old one was not?

To answer my own question, I suspect that the current administration (a) is learning from history and (b) has a higher percentage of vertebrates, so there really is hope.

Last Evening's Marquee Issue

The development agreement the City Council and others debated last evening is an attempt to preserve the quality of a planned American Fork neighborhood adjacent to the property to be annexed into Pleasant Grove. The concern is real. Neighborhoods affect each other, regardless of city boundaries, and high-density multifamily projects, with all their associated problems, have sprouted abundantly in that part of Pleasant Grove. But this is an uncertain and somewhat delicate thing, since it involves American Fork attempting to influence things American Fork does not directly control.

The City Council may already have been incensed at the Mayor's independence in negotiating the agreement. Then the Planning Commission unanimously recommended rejecting it, because it is vague in some areas, such as required park land, and for other reasons. The mayor responded by dismissing the Planning Commission's vote on the grounds that they didn't have all the information and therefore didn't know what they were doing.

Motives are often complex things, but some City Councilors seem to have been troubled both by the aforementioned vagueness and by how the Mayor treated the Council (perhaps) and the Planning Commission (especially). They voted 3-2, with Councilmen Dale Gunther and Jimmie Cates dissenting, to refer the matter back to the Planning Commission for reconsideration with full information. They also resolved to get the two cities' councils together for a meeting of the minds.

I am not suggesting that Mayor Thompson acted in bad faith; that is not his way. But I think his confidence in the good faith and good will of his Pleasant Grove counterpart exceeds the Council's, and I suppose he also misjudged the nature and extent of the Council's and Planning Commission's desires and concerns in this matter.

It's not the end of the world. We have to allow our elected leaders a learning curve. Happily, Mayor Thompson is an intelligent man, so most likely he is now absorbing some useful lessons in practical politics:

  • The City Council does not automatically fall in line with the Mayor, especially on issues they particularly care about, even if they all consider him a good and able man. Character is something but not everything.
  • Disrespecting the Planning Commission, deliberately or otherwise, publicly or privately, is bad politics.
  • The City Council expects to be talked to and listened to as things develop, not simply presented a fait accompli for an up-or-down vote.

It's also possible that the good Mayor is beginning to appreciate that some seasoned City officials' lack of enthusiasm for a "gentleman's agreement" with Pleasant Grove is deeply rooted in recent history.

They Acted Wisely

The Council's vote to refer the matter back to the Planning Commission, not to mention the Council's caution with respect to Pleasant Grove's leaders, frustrated many who were present at the meeting. Some complained -- a few at length, and one quite rudely -- about the additional delay.

As to the merits of the matter, I'm not certain that a more detailed and precise agreement will be more effective in bringing the desired results, even if it can be obtained. Perhaps it will; that would be excellent. But even if it won't, the Council acted wisely.

Whether or not the Planning Commission was sufficiently informed when it unanimously rejected the agreement, the fact is that the Mayor represented them as uninformed. For his part, City Planner Rod Despain may or may not have been right when he said repeatedly in the meeting that he doubted the Planning Commission would act any differently when given the information they allegedly lacked. But that doesn't matter, either.

The prudent thing is to repair those damaged internal political bridges right away by sending the matter back to the Planning Commission, this time supplying any information they may have lacked, and letting them take another crack at it -- whether they come to a different conclusion or not. Anything less conciliatory would risk unnecessarily gumming up American Fork City's internal politics for some time to come.

In the future, I suspect we'll see a more careful effort to inform and visibly respect the Planning Commission. Anything less would be -- dare I say it? -- ungentlemanly.

One final thought: Not everyone was displeased with the Council's action -- or inaction, as some represented it. As I left the building I was accosted by someone who enthusiastically praised the City Council for doing its homework and standing its ground.

David Rodeback comments (10/11/06):

Here Amy Choate-Nielsen reports some details of the agreement and also several individuals' comments on it.

David Rodeback comments (10/18/06):

This Amy Choate-Nielsen article reports that the Pleasant Grove City Council approved the annexation last night, without the a development agreement with American Fork, but still with the intention of complying with at least some of its terms. Time will tell. There was some name-calling -- odd that American Fork officials, who traditionally capitulate to Pleasant Grove in border manners, would be the ones called "bullies" -- but it wasn't Pleasant Grove officials talking trash.

David Rodeback comments (10/19/06):

Caleb Warnock's longer article today has a different view of Pleasant Grove's intentions in the absence of a development agreement.

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