America May Wield ‘Fear Factor’ Against North Korea, Syria, Iran

James B. Steinberg
James B. Steinberg Former Brookings Expert, University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University

April 13, 2003

Some 40 years ago, folk singer and satirist Tom Lehrer parodied contemporary fears of nuclear proliferation in a song titled “Who’s Next?” Now, even before the disarmament of Iraq has been achieved, the same refrain can be heard with increasing frequency in Washington. Only this time, the question is not which country will be the next to acquire weapons of mass destruction, but which will be the next target of the Bush administration’s aggressive strategy to disarm nations that have—or even aspire to have—those weapons.

The speculation has been stoked by statements from top administration officials, including State Department Undersecretary John Bolton, who two weeks ago said the Bush administration will give “extremely high priority” to halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Bolton also singled out Syria and Libya as states of concern because of their biological and chemical weapons programs.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also has been grumbling publicly about Syria, although for different reasons. Wednesday, he said that although “no one has thrown down the gauntlet,” Syria seemed to have made a “conscious decision” to ignore a U.S. demand not to provide weapons to Iraq.

His answer to the question “Who’s next in the Middle East?” was: “The question you ask, however, is not a question I can answer. It depends on people’s behavior. And certainly I have nothing to announce. We’re still dealing with Iraq.”

The possibility that the United States would target countries besides Iraq should not come as a complete surprise. Numerous statements from the president and his senior advisers have made clear that the campaign against Iraq should be seen as part of a wider strategy.

In his 2002 State of the Union speech, President Bush singled out Iran and North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq. And later that year, in his West Point commencement address, the president announced a new doctrine asserting that, in the post-Sept. 11 world, the United States would need to act against “rogue states” and terrorists who sought to acquire weapons of mass destruction even before they posed a direct threat to the United States.

This expanded concept of pre-emption (or more properly termed, preventive war) was enshrined in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States.

Iran, North Korea

The question that remains, though, is whether the president feels that the wider post-Iraq strategy should include military action elsewhere. The seeming ease of a U.S. military victory in Iraq may well embolden hawks—inside and outside the administration—to push just such options.

Even before crowds of Iraqis were celebrating in downtown Baghdad, the influential James Woolsey, former head of the CIA, said Iraq was the opening of the next “world war,” between America and such enemies as Iran’s religious leaders, Syria and Islamist terrorist groups.

Of course, Woolsey doesn’t necessarily speak for President Bush. But we do know that the administration clearly hopes that the decisive military action taken against Iraq will serve as an object lesson for other states of concern—such as Syria and Libya, as well as Iran and North Korea—and lead them to reverse course and abandon their aspirations to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

In some cases, the administration has also held out the prospect (explicitly or implicitly) of improved economic and political ties should the nations halt those weapons programs.

However, in the case of Iran and North Korea, the preconditions for improved ties go far beyond abandoning weapons of mass destruction programs. Iran would be expected to halt support for terrorist groups, and North Korea has been put on notice that it would need to scale back its huge conventional military force.

It is conceivable that the weaker of these nations, such as Syria and Libya, will be forced to alter their calculations, in part because even an implicit military threat by the United States may be sufficiently credible that it must be taken seriously.

But the same might not be true for Iran and North Korea, the two countries furthest along with their nuclear programs and therefore of the greatest concern.

Will they conclude that the American show of might threatens to put them next in the U.S. cross hairs and back down? Or will they instead decide that Iraq’s mistake was not its attempt to get nuclear weapons, but rather its failure to get them soon enough?

In other words, will they attempt to accelerate their nuclear programs in that hope that the risk of nuclear retaliation will deter U.S. pre-emption?

The administration’s ability to capitalize on the “fear factor” arising from Iraq will be complicated by questions about whether the United States would make good on its threat or have second thoughts because of the pain that could be inflicted on America or its allies.

There is not much Syria or Libya could do in the face of a U.S. attack. But a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities could lead to a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula, putting South Koreans and U.S. soldiers based there at risk.

Risks many for U.S.

Optimists might argue that North Korea would never launch a war that it was sure to lose. But many of the advocates of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor doubted Japan could ultimately prevail in a war against the United States—and launched one nonetheless. These very concerns led former Secretary of Defense William Perry to caution great wariness before threatening a military response to North Korea’s nuclear program in 1994.

For Iran, the credibility of a military threat is also problematic. Even if the United States could identify and successfully strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, the administration would need to think about the repercussions. The most immediate risks would be attacks on our military facilities in the Persian Gulf and terrorist attacks on our soldiers in Iraq.

It is unlikely that any of our partners in the gulf who are supporting the war against Iraq, which they viewed as a threat, would be as accommodating of a strike against Iran, which they don’t see as a threat to them.

As a result, they would most likely deny the United States the use of our bases there and distance themselves from us at the very time when our nation is seeking to restore its standing and support among the people of the Arab and Islamic worlds.

The threat of global terrorism against Americans would also increase, and the long-term prospect of improved relations with the Iranian people, many of whom are fighting internally for democratic regime change, would be dealt a severe blow.

Military action against North Korea or Iran would also have a profound impact on international attitudes toward the United States.

Although most countries have disagreed with the U.S. decision to use force, many world leaders recognize that Saddam Hussein’s blatant defiance of the U.N. Security Council—from Resolution 687 in 1991 through 1441 last year—gives at least a colorable claim to the legitimacy of our action.

But if world leaders found it hard to believe Saddam posed a threat worthy of war, they are unlikely to believe that about Iran, which has agreed to weapons inspections, or even about North Korea, which made a major shift Saturday and dropped its demand for one-on-one negotiations with the United States. The change appeared to be a concession to the White House’s demand for multilateral talks about Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

World reaction

Attacking either country without international support would intensify global fears about U.S. intentions and jeopardize America’s ability to gain support on a broad range vital of national objectives, ranging from the fight against terrorism to the effort to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

For now, the administration continues to insist that it is not pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach to the problem of weapons proliferation. U.S. leaders say they are focusing on multilateral diplomacy with North Korea and efforts to get Russia and others to halt their support of Iran’s nuclear program.

Still, the apparent success in Iraq, especially in the face of so much skepticism, could well strengthen the hand of the hawks, and we already know that they saw the president’s “axis of evil” speech as more of a battle plan than a warning. But it would be dangerous if success in Iraq emboldens the administration to recklessly play the game of “Who’s next?”