Under the Snow

 There's snow on the raspberry patch these days, and aside from the changing patterns of bird prints on the frozen surface, all seems inert within.

 There's snow on the raspberry patch these days, and aside from the changing patterns of bird prints on the frozen surface, all seems inert within. But plenty is going on: roots are maturing on composting organic matter and the life cycles of micro-organisms too numerous to count feed the process. The quiet is deceptive to the horticulturally naïve, and can lead them to foolish conclusions.

So it is that, several hundred column inches of dyspeptic op-ed articles aside, just because the Bush Administration is not acting part apoplectic, part apocalyptic over North Korea doesn't mean that it's oblivious to the problem. At the same time, while the administration tries to explain how North Korea and Iraq do and do not relate to one another, the hardest case of the famous "axis of evil", Iran, goes generally unremarked (of which more below).

The criticisms of the administration's handling of North Korea in light of Iraq have been mostly blithering nonsense. First there is the accusation, pounded from the block of the axis of evil affair, that North Korea's provocative behavior is the administration's own fault: the U.S. government threatened the regime, so it is responding in kind.

This sounds reasonable under one and only one condition: an almost total absence of thought. It is, after all, a little hard to understand how Pyongyang's decision to violate the 1994 Agreed Framework only a few months after it was signed could have been stimulated by a speech given on January 29, 2002. The duplicity of the North Korean regime long predates the Bush Administration; if that regime has become more anxious during the past year, it couldn't have happened to a more deserving bunch of guys.

The most common criticism one hears, however, is that the administration is inconsistently applying its new military pre-emption policy. Clearly, goes this line of thinking, Iraq is far less dangerous than North Korea judging by the far more advanced stage of the latter's weapons programs. So why focus on Iraq and soft-peddle North Korea?

The answer is so obvious that one can barely believe the apparent rarity of its appreciation: A rogue state's passing the nuclear threshold is a big deal. It sharply raises the stakes of conflict and simultaneously constrains U.S. options. North Korea's presumed two bombs and its missile technology mean that the United States has no pre-emptive military strategy worth the risks entailed. To all but the terminally dense, this strengthens the case for stopping the Ba`ath from getting the bomb. Who wants to wait until we find ourselves with an analogous paucity of options in Southwest Asia that we now face in Northeast Asia?

Nevertheless, intellectual luminaries such as former Secretary of State Warren Christopher tell us that we should reverse priorities, caring more about North Korea (and about finishing off the Al-Qaeda-Taliban threat) than Iraq. This from a man who served the administration that watchfully waited until Al-Qaeda could murder thousands of Americans, and whose temporizing and timidity allowed the North Korean regime to put itself beyond practical U.S. military suasion. Suppose we did that; suppose we just downright cared until our teeth rattled about North Korea. Would that deliver a diplomatic breakthrough or give us a military option we don't have now?

Cursory judgments as to which rogue proliferators are "more dangerous" than others make no sense in the absence of the relevant geographical, historical and diplomatic context. The administration hasn't done such a bad job explaining these differing contexts, but, alas, those who insist on not listening are pretty hard to persuade.

Once one appreciates the relevant contexts, it becomes clear that the operative difference between North Korea and Iraq is that we can act decisively to prevent Iraq from becoming a much bigger problem than it already is, and-without hubris and overreach, and with maximally feasible allied support-we should do so. Our Korea options are far more limited, which is one reason among several for adopting a dispassionate, low-keyed tone. The administration is wise not to let the North Koreans define circumstances as a crisis, or as a bilateral U.S.-North Korean affair. With every additional spasm of bellicosity, Pyongyang further irritates and alienates the only countries conceivably useful to it: China, Russia and, less so, Japan and South Korea. Such a dynamic may eventually lead to greater practical cooperation between the United States and these countries, so why interrupt the spectacle of North Korean communists publicly chewing on their boots?

Which brings us back to the antics of the axis of evil. Several commentariat columns of late have suggested that conservatives are or ought to be sorry for the President's axis of evil gaffe in last year's State of the Union address. Not only did this language evoke North Korean hostility, the argument goes, but it set the administration up to ridicule over the double standards with which it now approaches the Iraq and North Korean problems.

Well, I am reasonably grouped into the conservative camp on these issues, and I am not sorry for the President's remark. In the first place, no administration principal ever said that different evils must be susceptible to the same instruments of correction. Anyone who reviews the relevant statements can see that pre-emption was defined according to a fairly limited context. It was never claimed to displace deterrence, but to complement it in extraordinary circumstances. So this is an embarrassment, or a sign of inconsistency, only for the consistently obtuse.