Flashback to September of 2004: In the midst of the presidential race between George Bush and John Kerry, North Korea threatened to initiate nuclear weapons tests. There was no certainty that North Korea’s weapons programs were advanced enough to perform signficant testing. But, as concerned international arms control officials attempted to pin down details of what was happening at a potential test site in the country, Kerry put the latest development in perspective by suggesting that the mere fact of North Korea’s threaten was evidence of failed diplomacy.

The Democrat condemned the Bush administration for rejecting direct diplomacy in favor of the cowboy president’s bluster and blunder. Noting that the White House had failed to effectively engage North Korea’s concerned neighbors and other nuclear powers in the process, Kerry said: “The Chinese are frustrated, the South Koreans, the Japanese are frustrated” by what he described as the president’s neglectful and “ideologically driven” approach.

“I think that this is one of the most serious failures and challenges to the security of the United States, and it really underscores the way in which George Bush talks the game but doesn’t deliver,” explained the senator from Massachusetts, who spoke as one of the most experienced observers of arms control issues in Congress.

Describing what was happening two years ago in North Korea as “a nuclear nightmare,” Kerry suggested that Bush’s obsession with Iraq — a country that did not have weapons of mass destruction — had distracted the president and his administration from doing what was necessary to avert the greater threat posed by North Korea.

“They have taken their eye off the real ball… ,” Kerry said of the Bush administration. “They took it off in North Korea and shifted it to Iraq.” And, Kerry suggested that, if Bush was reelected, the attention of the United States would continued to be misdirected — with an emphasis on military adventures in the Persian Gulf rather than diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula.

Kerry’s comments barely earned a day of attention from the drive-by media, and they were ridiculed and attacked by conservative commentators and political operatives. White House spokesman Scott McClellan accused the Democratic presidential candidate of promoting policies that would allow North Korea “to dupe the United States,” while claiming that Bush was “pursuing a plan that will lead to the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program…”

When voters went to the polls in November of 2004, surveys showed that Americans still thought the Republican president — with his record of avoiding military service and blank-stare approach to foreign affairs — was more committed to protecting national security than the decorated Democratic veteran who had spent two decades developing his expertise on arms control and international relations.

Two years later, the headlines read:

“North Korea stokes worldwide fears with nuclear explosion”

“Nuclear test sends shudders through region”

“The world ponders a nuclear North Korea”

And, of course:

Bush rejects direct talks with North Korea

The first truth of the current situation is that the U.S. does not know how advanced North Korea’s nuclear program may be.

The second truth is that, so long as George Bush continues to reject diplomacy, the U.S. and the rest of the world is unlikely to learn the exact state of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions — let alone to reverse them.

The third and arguably most consequential truth is that, if the U.S. had elected a different president in 2OO4, the prospects for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and throughout the region would be far greater than they are today.

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John Nichols’ new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. “With The Genius of Impeachment,” writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, “John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States.” Studs Terkel says: “Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: ‘Bugger off!’ So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so.” The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com