In keeping with the new vogue for pre-emption, Democrats would be well-advised to try an unprecedented, pre-emptive flip-flop on North Korea.
Every Democrat in the country is saying things about the Korean crisis that they will regret and have to abandon, perhaps in a matter of weeks. Better to make the shift now to try to hide some of the opportunism later.
During the Iraq debate, doves have sought any shabby argument to counter President Bush's case for war. The notion that the Iraq buildup was distracting from the fight against al-Qaida was made ridiculous by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's capture. That has made more important the line of criticism that an Iraq-obsessed White House is neglecting North Korea.
If you weren't already scared by the Korean crisis, listening to Democrats will terrify you. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who wouldn't consider Saddam Hussein a threat if he marched on San Francisco, says that North Korea is "extremely dangerous." Sen. Tom Daschle considers North Korea "a grave threat that seems to grow with each day that passes."
Democrats can hardly mention North Korea without saying "threat." Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd thinks it "poses some tremendous threats to us," while Michigan Sen. Carl Levin calls it "a very threatening regime." Presidential candidate John Kerry asks, "Why are we not moving more aggressively with respect to that [North Korean] threat --where it is more real in terms of the longer-term threat of nuclearization -- than the current threat in Iraq?"
Everything Democrats say about North Korea is true and -- for their purposes -- shortsighted. Kerry's question will retain its bite only so long as Bush is distracted by Iraq. As soon as the administration turns its attention to North Korea and at least considers a military strike (as it must), the Democrats' apocalyptic rhetoric will lend support to a hard-line policy.
The Democratic standard from the Iraq debate is that a country must present an "imminent threat" for the United States to undertake military action. North Korea apparently meets the test. "This business of fighting war in Iraq," says West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, "is detracting our attention from that imminent [North Korean] threat." Democrats pooh-pooh the possibility of Saddam giving nukes to terrorists, but Delaware Sen. Joe Biden notes, ominously, that North Korea "exports things" and "all you need is two little pieces of that plutonium ... to produce a one-megaton bomb."
Assuming they will oppose a war in North Korea (and why would it be any more appealing than war in Iraq?), Democrats will have to walk all of this back -- e.g., North Korea has never actually used any of its nukes, it might be an imminent threat but hasn't attacked us yet, and as for its policies of mass starvation, well, even America has a hunger problem.
Also requiring reconsideration will be the Democrats' current taste for American unilateralism in the Korean crisis. The administration has been trying, futilely, to involve North Korea's neighbors in addressing the problem. Democrats, instead, want the United States to seize the initiative alone by engaging in bilateral talks.
Pelosi's position is that "In those talks, we must get more from North Korea than in existing agreements." Any hope of achieving that will mean exactly the sort of unilateralism that Pelosi hates. Military pressure will be necessary to give negotiations a glimmer of a chance of success, and if North Korea is determined to become a nuclear power, then war might be the only way to ensure a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
At this point, Democrats will rue ever having tried to distract attention from one looming war by implying another war might be necessary elsewhere. They will forget their warnings of the "extremely dangerous," "grave," "tremendous," "imminent" threat of North Korea, and want to talk about something else -- say, Iran or even Nagorno-Karabakh.
Today, Daschle says, "The president should stop downplaying this threat." Tomorrow, he will say, "Uh, never mind."