A year ago, President Bush stood before Congress and the nation and declared that Iran, Iraq and North Korea constituted “an axis of evil.” Warning that “these regimes pose a grave and growing danger,” the president vowed: “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” He later made clear that the United States would, if necessary, strike pre-emptively to make good on that pledge.
Since then, the White House has sought to convince Americans and the rest of the world that one of the axis-of-evil nations—Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—poses a unique and imminent threat. The administration has said repeatedly that it intends to disarm Iraq, by force if necessary. American troops are heading to the Persian Gulf in great numbers. War might begin within the next several weeks.
But while Washington’s sights have been fixed on Baghdad, North Korea is actually coming closer to realizing the nightmare Bush warned against last January: a “rogue” state with nuclear weapons, willing, perhaps, to sell them to the highest bidder.
Over the past few months, Pyongyang has admitted to a secret uranium-enrichment program, ended international inspections of its nuclear facilities and taken steps to resume the production of plutonium. These steps violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well as Pyongyang’s 1994 Agreed Framework accord with the United States.
If North Korea continues on this course, it will have enough material by the middle of this year to build at least six nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration has reacted to North Korea’s nuclear challenge with measured indifference. Talk of war is absent. Instead, the White House calls Pyongyang’s actions “disappointing” and “regrettable.” Secretary of State Colin Powell admits the situation is “serious,” but insists it is not a crisis.
The disparity in U.S. policy toward Iraq and North Korea is nothing short of remarkable. The United States may soon go to war with Iraq even though it is providing unconditional and unfettered access to United Nations inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, Washington all but ignores North Korea, even though it has expelled U.N. inspectors and is on the verge of acquiring a small nuclear arsenal.
Why is the administration treating these two charter members of the axis of evil so differently? And what are the consequences of doing so?
Although President Bush originally placed three countries in the axis of evil, he quickly and publicly ruled out using military force against Iran and North Korea. Not so with Iraq, which soon became the target of U.S. military planning.
Why did Iraq move to center stage in administration thinking—even though Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs are almost surely more advanced? Three factors were at play.
First, many senior administration officials came to office intent on toppling Saddam. Most had served in the administration of George H.W. Bush, and they regarded the February 1991 decision not to march on Baghdad to be a mistake. Sept. 11 hardened their conviction, and perhaps the president’s as well.
In Bob Woodward’s recent book, “Bush at War”—which is based on detailed notes of national security meetings—Bush tells his advisers on several occasions that he believes Iraq had ties to the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. So while he was willing to focus on Afghanistan first, Iraq was always going to be next.
Another reason for focusing on Iraq is that the administration believes that Saddam can be ousted with relative ease. Iraq may have some chemical and biological weapons, but it lacks nuclear weapons. Its army has gotten much weaker than it was during the gulf war, while U.S. military might has grown much stronger. Moreover, Baghdad has few friends—and none that is expected to help it if the United States attacks.
Finally, “regime change” in Iraq gives the president what he and several of his advisers want: the opportunity for a grand strategic play, the type that establishes presidential reputations. They believe that liberating Iraq could transform the Middle East by ushering in democratic governments throughout the region—making it less-fertile ground for terrorists and possibly even creating stronger allies for a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The White House believes that, much as Ronald Reagan is remembered as the president who won the Cold War, George W. Bush will be remembered as the president who brought democracy and peace to the Middle East.
Setting the agenda
Bush prides himself on setting his own agenda. As he said in December 2000 when announcing that Colin Powell would be his secretary of state: “As president, I will set out priorities, and we will stand by them. If we do not set our own agenda, it will be set by others, potential adversaries or crises at the moment.”
Today, Iraq tops Bush’s foreign-policy agenda and nothing—including the actions of an impoverished North Korea desperate for attention—is going to divert him. According to the Washington Post, Bush reportedly told his advisers in October, “we do not need another crisis now.” And so, there is no crisis—just a “regrettable” situation.
Whether North Korea’s actions are defined as a crisis or not, they clearly represent a significant escalation. Pyongyang already had enough plutonium for one or possibly two nuclear weapons even before it agreed to shut down its plutonium-production program as part of the Agreed Framework, the bilateral deal the Clinton administration worked out in 1994.
If North Korea reprocesses spent fuel that has been sitting under lock and key for the past eight years, as it is preparing to do, it will have enough material for six more nuclear weapons by summer. By the middle of this decade, North Korea could be producing enough fissile material to build nearly 50 weapons a year.
On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of directors is expected to conclude that Pyongyang has breached its obligations and to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council. Washington supports the IAEA’s proposed plan of action. But it is unclear what it wants the Security Council to do. The administration has ruled out the military option, fearing that the North, which has many missiles and other conventional weapons, could retaliate against South Korea and Japan, with devastating consequences for their people as well as the thousands of U.S. soldiers stationed there. It has also ruled out negotiations, arguing that this would reward bad behavior.
By ruling out both carrots and sticks, the administration has left itself with little room to maneuver. Its ill-defined policy of “tailored containment” seeks to isolate Pyongyang diplomatically in the hope that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will be forced to change course. But it remains unclear how far the administration will go: Will it ask allies to cut off trade and aid, as it proposed recently?
It’s also unclear whether other countries would go along, in any case. South Korea’s newly elected president campaigned on more, not less, engagement with the North. And China fears that Pyongyang’s collapse would saddle it with tens of thousands of refugees.
The other flaw with tailored containment is that it suggests that if Kim Jong Il clings to power, the United States can live with a nuclear North Korea. As Powell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday: “This is a country that’s in desperate condition. What are they going to do with another two or three nuclear weapons when they’re starving, when they have no energy, when they have no economy that’s functioning?”
But Powell’s comments are hardly reassuring. A desperate country could do many things with nuclear weapons. It could explode one to get Washington’s attention. Or it could sell a few to the highest bidder, say, Al-Qaida. This is precisely the threat that Bush warned against in his axis-of-evil speech.
Even if Washington could live with a nuclear North Korea, it’s unclear whether Tokyo or Seoul could. This could prompt the very nuclear proliferation in northeast Asia that U.S. administrations have worked for decades to prevent.
There are ways to engage North Korea without rewarding it for “nuclear blackmail,” however. This would involve offering more carrots and wielding bigger sticks. The administration could detail what the United States and its regional allies are prepared to offer in terms of diplomatic relations and economic assistance once North Korea dismantles its nuclear program. And it could make clear that Pyongyang’s failure to respond would result in the destruction of its nuclear facilities—and of North Korea’s government if it chooses to retaliate.
To walk that thin a diplomatic tightrope, President Bush would need the very thing he won’t have if we’re at war with Iraq: time to focus.
Decision-makers must, from time to time, re-examine the assumptions underlying their policy to make sure they remain sound. Now is such a time for Bush and his advisers.
They should ask whether they still have their priorities right. Should Iraq remain their top concern? Or should they shift course, letting the U.N. inspection process continue in Iraq while giving top priority to dealing with the nuclear threat from North Korea?
To make that decision, the administration will need to consider whether it really can live with a nuclear-armed North Korea, as Powell suggested. If the answer is no, then it is time to shift priorities, before Pyongyang begins churning out nuclear bombs.
If the answer is yes, the president’s commitment not to “permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons” becomes an empty aspiration—more useful for scoring rhetorical points than offering guidance for U.S. policy.
North Korea will be watching very carefully how the Trump administration handles itself in the Middle East. It will look at how determined Washington is in using its arsenal [against Syria].