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After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Sen. William Borah said: "If only I could have talked with Hitler, all this might have been avoided." Now 55 years later, Borah's ghost returns with another dictator threatening invasion if the world does not stop insisting that he abide by the rules of civilized behavior.

"I don't know what would have happened today if no one had been willing to talk to anybody in North Korea," said a self-congratulatory Jimmy Carter upon returning from talks with Kim Il Sung with a promise of peace in our time. "The crisis is over," declared Carter.The crisis is not over. Nothing has been done to stop the North Korean drive for nuclear weapons. But much was done by Carter to derail U.S. efforts to stop that drive.

The sanctions President Clinton belatedly and tepidly began to press for are now, and possibly forever, dead. The coalition the United States was trying to put together is in disarray.

Carter's visit - and the latest administration retreat that followed - destroyed what little was left of Clinton's Korea policy.

It is now such a shambles that Clinton was reduced to holding a White House seminar last Monday night with outside critics to figure out just where to go from here. (No luck.)

Just last month, after a year of provocation and prevarication by North Korea, Clinton had drawn the line in the sand: If North Korea unloaded plutonium-bearing fuel rods from its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon and destroyed evidence of its past bomb-building, the United States would withdraw any offer of talks and seek sanctions.

Well, within two weeks North Korea had done exactly that. Clinton, his bluff called, was forced finally to seek sanctions against North Korea. But now he is losing his nerve even for that.

Carter returns with a promise that North Korea will "freeze" future plutonium production and the administration then reverses itself, ignores the Yongbyon unloading Clinton once warned was the Rubicon not to be crossed, and prepares to drop sanctions and resume talks.

OK, you say, another capitulation, but isn't a North Korean freeze a major concession? No. It is a sham.

To safely reprocess the Yongbyon fuel rods into bomb material, the North Koreans have to wait a month or two anyway before extracting their plutonium (they bear enough for five new bombs). Why? Because the rods are now still relatively hot (radioactive). With time, they cool.

Having decided to treat Kim's accommodation to the laws of physics as a sign of conciliation to us, we are now preparing to reciprocate with a major concession of our own: high-level talks (about diplomatic recognition, trade and aid for North Korea) that we had solemnly warned could not take place if North Korea unloaded the Yongbyon reactor in the first place.

Moreover, even Carter had to admit that Kim promised not a permanent freeze but a temporary one. It would continue so long as Kim deems the United States to be negotiating in "good faith."

I predict that within, oh, about two months, after the rods have cooled enough for easier bomb building, Kim will discern the first fatal signs of American bad faith and the freeze will be off.

But Carter - the most gullible political pilgrim since George Bernard Shaw said in 1931 of the Soviet Union, "Tomorrow I leave this land of hope and return to our Western countries of despair" - is not to blame.

The real culprit is Clinton. Carter had twice before asked permission to go to North Korea to solve our problems by talking sweet reason with the planet's most megalomanic despot. Twice before, the State Department, seeing nothing but trouble, turned him down. This time, with sanctions negotiations at a delicate stage, Clinton personally approved Carter's mission.

Yet Carter has said explicitly that his intention was to destroy Clinton's sanctions option, which he thought a terrible and dangerous idea. He has succeeded. The sanctions strategy is now irreparably damaged.

What weak or dependent country, what South Korea or Japan, will go along with a United States so irresolute that it allows itself to be derailed by a grandstanding ex-president who brought home nothing new?

After this display, what allies are going to join a U.S.-led coalition the next time talks break down or Kim crosses a line? You don't start and restart sanctions campaigns like a car.

Why should potential coalition partners go out on a limb in the face of a belligerent neighbor, when Clinton might leave them hanging out there alone with his next change of mind, his next foreign policy seminar?