Iraq, North Korea, and the Law of Unintended Consequences

As if coping with either Iraq or North Korea alone was not sufficiently challenging, the prospect of dealing with both-simultaneously-poses even greater risks.

As if coping with either Iraq or North Korea alone was not sufficiently challenging, the prospect of dealing with both-simultaneously-poses even greater risks. And the Bush Administration's success in dealing with these two momentous problems simultaneously will be judged not only by the results of its efforts in each case, but also by their joint implications, intended or unintended, for other would-be members of the nuclear club. So far, there is a very real danger that states hostile to the United States may actually be encouraged-rather than discouraged-to seek a nuclear capability through covert means.

The logic of this argument is very simple. Iraq, which is hostile to America and is not believed to possess nuclear weapons (yet), appears to be the target of an imminent and overwhelming attack intended (among other things) to unseat its government and reshape its political system. North Korea, an equally despotic regime which also has troubled relations with the United States, but is widely considered to have at least a few deliverable nuclear warheads, is receiving considerably gentler treatment from Washington. The message: the best way to protect one's country from the sole superpower (and especially from its moralist impulses) is to acquire nuclear weapons.

Needless to say, each situation is considerably more complex than this.

First of all, Iraq has been de facto, if not de jure, in a state of low-level war with the United States for the past decade, during which American and Iraqi forces have exchanged fire on a regular basis. It is also possible, though not yet proven, that Baghdad had had significant links to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, which is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans. While relations with North Korea have been tense-and there have been occasional minor conflicts between North and South Korea-Pyongyang and Washington are not engaged in armed combat.

America's regional partners also have contrasting views. Our principal allies in the Middle East-Israel and Turkey-are also worried about Iraq and, while concerned by the possible consequences of an American attack, are prepared to support Washington. Key U.S. allies in East Asia, including Japan and South Korea, appear more troubled by the potential collapse of the North Korean government as the result of military action than by the possibility of a North Korean nuclear attack.

Also, Saddam Hussein has actually used weapons of mass destruction and has invaded two neighboring countries relatively recently. Though Kim Jong-il has not yet faced a potentially mortal threat to his leadership, nevertheless he has not used nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Moreover, it has been nearly fifty years since the Korean War.

A more general problem is the fact that the American political system, U.S. relationships with other major powers, and the United Nations Security Council are ill-suited to handle more than one crisis at a time. This forces the Bush Administration to choose between maintaining the priority it has given to Iraq or shifting its attention to North Korea. And letting Saddam Hussein off the hook now would send the worst possible message.

Unfortunately, if anything is certain in international relations, it is the fact that the subtleties of one's own decision-making process are rarely understood by others-sometimes including even close friends and allies. Al-Qaeda made a profound miscalculation along these lines in concluding from the American withdrawal from Somalia that the U.S. was incapable of serious military intervention abroad. Hostile regimes (including Pyongyang) may similarly view excessively delicate handling of North Korea as a sign of American weakness when confronted by nuclear weapons.

The question, of course, is what the United States should do about this dilemma.

First, Americans must realize that the world of the 21st century is far more complex and dangerous than most people were prepared to believe it would beduring the 1990s. Though September 11 demonstrated this harsh reality, some have not yet accepted that the attacks might be an extreme example of a new world disorder rather than an exception to the old rules.

Second, Bush Administration officials must work several steps ahead on both Iraq and North Korea. A principal failing of the administration's approach to Iraq has been its insufficient attention to questions about "the day after," i.e., how will Washington manage the consequences of a successful war? North Korea raises several new and important questions: How can the U.S. apply credible pressure to Pyongyang while fully engaged in a potential war in Iraq? How should America react if Pyongyang attempts to intimidate South Korea? What can Washington do if Iraq and North Korea coordinate their actions, either tacitly or directly, however unlikely this may seem today? Managing these two crises at once will require substantial and sophisticated analysis and careful preparation.