Joe Conason's Journal

Bush's North Korea conundrum: So why the focus on Saddam? Plus: A post-chest thumping security plan.

By Salon Staff

Published October 18, 2002 3:53PM (EDT)

Seoul of wisdom
While the North Korean nuke revelation elicits much of the usual macho breast-beating from most of the usual suspects, there is another, wiser approach to the broader strategic problems of peace and power in Asia. Our allies don't want conflict on that bloodied peninsula, and neither should we. The prospect of a new regional security forum is very ably outlined here by John Newhouse, one of the nation's most astute defense analysts.
[1:20 a.m. PDT, Oct. 18, 2002]

Grinding the axis
For Washington's gung-ho enthusiasts of pre-emptive war, Bush-style, this must be a confusing moment. With the revelation of North Korea's covert nuclear program, it is suddenly and utterly unclear how the Bush administration determines which enemy nation presents an imminent danger to the United States and must be invaded, and which other armed adversaries should remain objects of diplomatic engagement. No wonder the administration concealed this startling information from the public, the press and most members of Congress during the debate over the Iraq war resolution.

An unnamed U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal that "the timing of this thing is terrible" -- but it isn't quite as bad as two weeks ago, when the White House first learned about Pyongyang's admission. At the time, upon returning from meetings with North Korean officials, Assistant Secretary of State for Asian Affairs James Kelly canceled a scheduled briefing for journalists. He issued an opaque statement and took no questions.

Quite correctly, if somewhat mildly, Colin Powell said that the North Koreans have "some explaining to do." But so does Powell and the president.

Of the three states designated by the president as an "axis of evil," only one is now thought likely to possess nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. That would be North Korea, which bid farewell to the American assistant secretary of state with a belligerent announcement of its violation of the 1994 framework for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. For several months, and perhaps years, the CIA has suspected Pyongyang of secretly reviving its atomic weapons development program. Why the North Korean officials suddenly confessed their country's abrogation of the 1994 deal is unclear  although they may have believed that their violations would soon be discovered anyway.

The most interesting aspect of this confrontation at the moment, however, is the uncharacteristically bland response from the White House . As Condoleezza Rice put it, North Korea won't be permitted to join "the international community of states" if its leaders keep misbehaving. That admonishment fell somewhat short of a warning of imminent military (or even diplomatic) action. Instead, policies that the president's flacks loudly denounce as "appeasement" in other circumstances  such as diplomatic engagement or inducments such as future aid and trade  will be applied frantically to resuscitate the 1994 agreement. (Another embarrassing aspect of the North Korean problem is that Pakistan, our "ally" in the war on Islamist terror, probably supplied some of Pyongyang's nuclear technology.)

Iran, another member of Bush's "axis," may soon be on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. Intelligence about the progress of their weapons development is sketchy. But unhindered by international sanctions, its "evil" leadership is surely trying to purchase or create nuclear materials for military purposes, again according to the CIA. Moreover, having already acquired significant stocks of chemical and biological weapons, the mullahs continue to pursue more, along with more powerful ballistic missiles. Yet regardless of such concerns, the United States is seeking the support of Iran's Foreign Ministry for a stronger new U.N. resolution against the third "axis" member: the government of Iraq. The U.S. has not approached Iran directly, of course, but via diplomatic efforts by the British, whose foreign minister Jack Straw visited Tehran for that purpose a week ago. (Straw reportedly assured the Iranians that the American president's rhetorical assaults on their regime are meaningless.)

Now despite the fact that Iraq possesses neither nuclear bombs nor the means to produce or deliver them, the Bush administration views that nation's effort to acquire such weapons as the most threatening problem posed by any of these three states. In the White House and the Pentagon, Iraq's violations of international agreements are seen as a problem to be solved by force rather than diplomacy.

The official explanation for targeting Baghdad is that the Iraqi dictatorship has proved its willingness to use weapons of mass destruction against a neighboring state, namely that other evil entity Iran, and has invaded both Iran and Kuwait. But whatever his malignant designs may be, Saddam Hussein hasn't disturbed any of his neighbors for more than a decade. Iraq's oppressive regime isn't appreciably worse than North Korea's, nor is it more anti-American than Iran's.

Why American policymakers still deem diplomacy appropriate in two cases, but not the third, is a question that they will have to answer very soon in the international community and at home. Someday the Bush administration should also explain why its military planners are mulling the design and deployment of a new generation of nuclear armaments, while its diplomats are supposedly aiming to prevent the proliferation of such weapons everywhere else.
[8:55 a.m. PDT, Oct. 18, 2002]

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