The danger of stimulating WMD proliferation

Posted: Jan 07, 2003 12:00 AM
Many people believe America is heading inexorably into a war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein has not proven he is without weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, President Bush is wisely handling North Korea’s nuclear provocations with diplomacy, downplaying the possibility of military action and bringing coordinated pressure to bear on Pyongyang from its neighbors to eliminate the nuclear weapons program it openly acknowledges. American foreign policy rests on the very sound and logical consensus that further proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons must be stopped. Unfortunately, threatening war against Iraq while simultaneously dealing with the North Korean crisis through diplomacy may have the unintended effect of encouraging small, weak nations to obtain nukes and chemical-biological weapons as fast as they possibly can in order to gain leverage. Our overwhelming military superiority may also tempt us to believe that a relatively easy military victory in Iraq will automatically translate into a short, smooth and successful occupation and political makeover of the country. A recent analysis of the Iraqi situation by Stratfor, a well-known strategic and intelligence firm, gives one pause, however. The analysis warns that “the current U.S. plans for military action against Iraq do not meet the criteria for peaceful occupation” and the United States “might find itself consumed instead with problems of occupation within a year of unseating Saddam Hussein.” There seems to be a growing belief by some in Washington that even though Iraq appears to be cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors, the diplomatic options in Iraq are rapidly dwindling and war is inevitable. But why must war be inevitable? There also seems to be a consensus that unless North Korea does something outrageous, like attacking one of its neighbors, we should pursue nonmilitary options. Why is that very reasonable approach to North Korea not also applicable to Iraq? The leaders of both Iraq and North Korea are brutal dictators who don’t seem to mind inflicting all manner of suffering on their own people to further their personal ambitions. But Hussein’s threat outside his own borders appears to be contained by ongoing U.N. inspections and our overwhelming military presence in the region. North Korea, on the other hand, brazenly threatens to destabilize much of Asia. It kicked U.N. inspectors out of the country and flagrantly restarted its plutonium-production facility. North Korea may have an operable nuke, perhaps as many as six. It has abrogated its treaty obligations, violated U.N. resolutions and openly embarked on plutonium production that could yield sufficient fissile material for another five or six nukes within six months. Both North Korea and Iraq invaded their neighbors in the past, yet today Iraq has apologized to Kuwait and has no troops to speak of stationed on the border with its former victim while Pyongyang threatens to turn South Korea into a sea of flames. Iraq poses no military threat to the United States while North Korea may soon have a long-range missile that can reach our shores or, worse yet, may soon sell nukes to terrorists groups and other countries seeking the ability to blackmail the United States. Iraq has only about 400,000 poorly equipped men under arms with perhaps a few leftover unreliable Scud missiles, no air force and a small outmoded tank force. North Korea, on the other hand, has the world’s third-largest ground force, with 1 million active-duty soldiers, 700,000 of them stationed on the DMZ with South Korea looking directly at 37,000 American soldier-hostages stationed there. In addition to a huge reserve force and large numbers of artillery tubes, tanks and military aircraft, North Korea also has intermediate-range missiles capable of targeting anywhere in South Korea and long-range missiles with a range of 3,100 miles, and it can fit chemical and biological warheads to all of them. On Sunday, the world saw a satellite picture in The New York Times of one of North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities. One wonders why we don’t have similar satellite imagery of Iraq’s nuclear facilities, if they exist. And if there are technical differences between the two situations that preclude our obtaining similar pictures of Iraq’s facilities, one must ask, what is our reaction to Baghdad’s offer to allow the CIA to enter Iraq and look first hand anywhere they suspect WMD? As I have said before, let’s call Iraq’s bluff. Many critics of the Bush administration are assailing the president for being inconsistent because he is handling Iraq and North Korea differently. But foreign policy is not an exercise in abstract logic, and there is no better application of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s dictum that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” It’s not “inconsistent” to handle different situations differently; indeed, it would be foolish to treat them identically. What concerns me, though, is the possibility that we might actually be stimulating WMD proliferation among small, weak nations if we go to war with Iraq without having in hand concrete and convincing evidence that it has failed to disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction.