What a nuisance! Just as the Bush administration had Saddam Hussein back in the cross hairs as the top target of the president's global evil-eradication program comes the news of more urgent threats. And once again, the bad news about al-Qaida and North Korea could not be logically connected in any way with Iraq.
First, CIA director George J. Tenet issued a warning that al-Qaida poses as much of a danger to the U.S. as it did before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That's a bummer because, if true, it means that the much-celebrated regime change in Afghanistan didn't even slow down Osama bin Laden's gang of psychos. It is then doubly difficult to make the case that a regime change in Iraq would make Americans safer from al-Qaida terrorism because there is not a shred of reliable evidence linking that to Saddam.
Both Tenet and Czech President Vaclav Havel have said that there is no evidence that a much-publicized Prague meeting between Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi agent ever happened.
Now we learn, according to high-level Bush administration leaks to the New York Times, that Pakistan has been colluding with North Korea to the mutual benefit of their respective nuclear weapons programs. Both countries are in violation of agreed-upon international restraints, but in Pakistan's case the U.S. has lifted sanctions, while it seeks to reimpose them on North Korea.
Further complicating things, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz last week disavowed any Iraqi link to al-Qaida: "We don't condone religious fundamentalism, and therefore we don't have any relationship with those people." We don't have to trust Aziz to know his and Saddam's secular Baath Party has a huge stake in repressing fundamentalism.
This is an awkward irony, given that our Pakistani and Saudi allies not only condone Muslim fundamentalism but, more important, created its most virulent expression in the form of bin Laden's sponsors -- the Taliban.
Why not engineer a regime change in North Korea and Pakistan before getting around to Iraq, where functioning nuclear weapons, according to our latest CIA intelligence, are only a gleam in Saddam's eyes? For all the loose talk about Saddam's purported chemical and biological weapons threat -- smallpox vaccine, anyone? -- it is nuclear weapons, combined with the missile delivery systems possessed by North Korea and Pakistan, that represent the most serious threat of mass destruction. If launched on a city like New Delhi, India, or Seoul, South Korea, even atomic bombs like the primitive ones we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 57 years ago would be an unfathomable atrocity.
There are those, including some frustrated ex-doves, who when faced with such an expanding enemies list throw up their hands and say the heck with it, let's blast away at evil on all fronts. As with the barroom brawler who will take up fisticuffs over any provocation, this macho appeal allows one to avoid seeming weak -- except in the head. Fortunately, however, cooler heads are beginning to perceive a disaster in the making as we thrash about at any available target with unreserved venom. That is why the Bush administration is already backing off its first tough words about the treachery of North Korea.
The truth is that Pyongyang, North Korea, is a completely isolated junk-heap. The government hopes desperately to follow Beijing's and Seoul's path to an export-driven market economy. But it is diplomatically inept and now just blurts out its worst behaviors -- kidnapping Japanese civilians, building weapons of mass destruction -- in a desperate bid for aid and recognition.
It is thus best to think of North Korea as that bankrupt nation in the Peter Sellers movie "The Mouse That Roared," based on the Leonard Wibberly novel about a small nation that declares war on the U.S., planning to lose before a shot is fired and thus be eligible for generous financial aid from the victor.
And it might even work. Negotiations with the U.S. that were sidetracked under the Bush administration will now begin in earnest. The spigot of assistance from Japan and South Korea should be opened enough to eventually allow North Korea to flood Wal-Mart and Costco with cheap products built by a docile labor force.
The hawks have got it wrong, for they have given up too easily on the siren song of capitalism.
Trade, aid, tourism and pirated Hollywood movies are the proven weapons of mass destruction against totalitarianism, much more effective than sanctions and war, which only enshrine dictators and terrorists as the protectors of a people or nation's virtue. Inviting it to the table is still the best weapon for stuffing a mouse that roars.