The Risks of Playing ‘Who’s Next?’

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

April 3, 2003

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Some 40 years ago, folk singer and satirist Tom Lehrer parodied contemporary fears of nuclear proliferation in a song entitled “Who’s next?” Today, even before the disarmament of Iraq has been achieved, the same refrain can be heard with increasing frequency in Washington, spurred on by recent comments by Secretaries Rumsfeld and Powell, as well as the chief U.S. non-proliferation official, John Bolton. Only this time, the question is not what country will be the next to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but which country is the next target of an aggressive strategy to disarm current or potential WMD states.

Numerous statements from the President and his senior advisors 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. Later that year, in his West Point commencement address, the President announced a new doctrine asserting that, in the post September 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 preemption (or more properly termed, preventive war) was enshrined in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States.

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 WMD aspirations. In some cases, the Administration has also held out the prospect (explicitly or implicitly) of improved economic and political ties should the regimes in question halt their WMD programs—although, in the case of both Iran and North Korea, the preconditions for improved ties goes far beyond WMD related concerns. For Iran, this principally involved halting support for terrorist groups, while in the case of North Korea, the administration has pinpointed North Korea’s conventional military capability as an issue which must be addressed.

It is conceivable that the weaker of these regimes, 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 for the two countries of greatest concern, Iran and North Korea, the response to the Iraq invasion is more problematic. Will they conclude that the American show of might threatens to put them next in U.S. cross-hairs? Or, on the contrary, will they judge 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 the hope that the risk of nuclear retaliation will deter U.S. preemption?

The Administration’s ability to capitalize on the “fear factor” arising out of Iraq will be complicated by questions concerning the credibility of the military preemption threat. There’s not much Syria or Libya could do in the face of a U.S. attack. But in the case of North Korea, a preemptive military strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities could lead to a full scale war on the Korean peninsula. 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 win a war against the U.S.—and yet they launched one nonetheless. And as the coalition’s experience in Iraq has shown, it is risky to pin all hopes on the assumption that the U.S. knows in advance how adversaries will respond. These very concerns led 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 U.S. could identify and successfully strike Iranian nuclear facilities, what would be the repercussions? The most immediate risk would be attacks on U.S. facilities in the Persian Gulf, not to mention coalition soldiers in Iraq. It’s unlikely that any nations in the Gulf that are supporting the U.S. against Iraq would be as accommodating of a strike against Iran. And more likely they would feel pressure to end the American presence and distance themselves from the United States at the very time when America is seeking to restore its standing and support among the people of the Arab and Islamic world. The threat of terrorism would also increase, and the long-term prospect of improved relations with the Iranian people, who themselves are seeking 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 our decision to use force, many recognize that Saddam Hussein’s blatant defiance of the Security Council—from Resolution 687 in 1991 through 1441 last year—gives at least a colorable claim to the legitimacy of our action. But without having laid the groundwork against either Iran or North Korea, global fears about U.S. intentions would intensify, hindering efforts to gain support on a broad range vital national objectives, ranging from the fight against terrorism to the long-term effort to stop the proliferation of WMD.

For now, the Administration continues to insist that it is not pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach to the problem of proliferation, focusing on diplomacy with North Korea and efforts to get Russia and others to halt their support of Iran’s nuclear program. But it would be unfortunate, and dangerous, if the hoped-for success in Iraq emboldens the Administration to recklessly play the game of “Who’s next?”