Implacable hawks with influence on the Bush administration are gutting what could have been President Bush's prime achievement in national security. Instead of leaving the Obama administration a disabled North Korean nuclear reactor and an effective agreement to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear arms, Bush may instead bequeath his successor an avoidable crisis, with North Korea restarting its nuclear reactor.

The hawks — a group that includes Vice President Dick Cheney and former UN ambassador John Bolton — have sought to sabotage negotiations with North Korea in two ways. One is to break U.S. commitments made in a series of six-party talks. The other is to demand that North Korea perform certain actions before any mutual agreement on those actions has been reached.

Last week, the chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said in Beijing that four days of talks with his North Korean counterpart failed to produce a written protocol for verifying steps that the regime had taken toward denuclearization. But the administration had no grounds, under previous agreements, to demand such a document.

... An October 2007 agreement on implementation of phase 2 obliged North Korea to disable its nuclear reactor and nuclear fuel rod fabrication facility at Yongbyon. In return, the United States was to remove North Korea from the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism.

And while North Korea had given Hill oral assurances that it is prepared to permit inspectors to visit undeclared sites and take environmental samples, there was nothing in phase 2 about a verification protocol. Nevertheless, these hard-liners tried to halt the agreed-upon delisting of North Korea until they procured a written agreement on verification.

The administration's hard-liners eventually had to implement the U.S. delisting commitment. But recently they moved the goalposts, demanding that the North agree in phase 2 to accept verification measures originally envisioned for phase 3.

Even worse, Hill was not empowered to offer North Korea anything in exchange for signing a written agreement on verification measures ahead of schedule. This is an attempt to get something for nothing and violates the action-for-action principle at the core of the six-party negotiations.

Bush would be a fool not to give North Korea the energy aid it needs in exchange for verification measures that, sooner or later, the regime is bound to accept.