The raging debate over the damage done to the Bush Administration's credibility by questions about the president's State of the Union speech, questionable intelligence, and Iraq's still-elusive weapons of mass destruction obscures another credibility problem that may prove much more substantial in its impact on American international interests: U.S credibility in dealing with the grave danger of a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea.
There has long been a striking contrast between the Administration's handling of Iraq and its approach to North Korea, which many considered a more serious threat to the United States than Saddam Hussein's tyrannical regime. One explanation for this difference is that the Bush Administration is pursuing a carefully calibrated strategy that seeks to avoid playing into Pyongyang's hand by allowing the perception of crisis. This is certainly possible-but it is not reassuring, because all visible evidence suggests that North Korea has continued to move rapidly toward building a nuclear arsenal and may be quite close to achieving that objective.
Another potential explanation-already widely advanced in the media-is that there is a faction within the Bush Administration that is prepared to be quite aggressive in the Middle East, especially on issues of concern to Israel, but is noticeably less activist in confronting other problems.
A third possibility is that the United States-including Administration officials, the government bureaucracy, and the military-has been so preoccupied with Iraq that North Korea has received much less priority, either by design or by omission. Of course, none of these three possibilities are mutually exclusive.
At the time, many argued that the "shock and awe" of America's rapid victory in Iraq could be useful in intimidating Pyongyang by demonstrating both U.S. capabilities and U.S. resolve-even absent support from the United Nations Security Council. This perspective appeared to be validated in the immediate aftermath of the war in Iraq; North Korean leaders were described as "petrified" by the stunning U.S. victory and announced that Pyongyang would "not stick to any particular dialogue format" for discussions with the U.S. This represented a clear retreat from the North's insistence on direct bilateral negotiations with Washington.
Yet, now that the U.S. can begin to focus on North Korea, the American military seems hamstrung by continuing efforts to pacify Iraq. Plans to bring elements of the Third Infantry Division back to the United States have been delayed twice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reportedly raised initial objections to sending just 2,000 soldiers to keep the peace in Liberia in part because the American military is stretched too thin in Iraq and elsewhere. Taking into account that a real war with North Korea's million man army would likely require even more resources than the war with Iraq (whose military might was crushed in the first Gulf War), the Pentagon's "win-hold-win" doctrine looks increasingly like "hold-hold"-at a time when the status quo of North Korea's creeping nuclear status is not acceptable. Worse, as the duration and extent of the U.S. commitment to Iraq has become clearer, North Korea has returned to its pattern of provocative behavior, for example, in announcing almost two weeks ago that it had completed reprocessing some 8,000 nuclear fuel rods into weapons-usable material.
Thus it is difficult to see how the United States can credibly present military options for dealing with North Korea without reducing its commitments in Iraq, especially when the iron constraints of deployments and logistics are described daily in America's open media. A U.S. nuclear strike is certainly possible, but given the enormous costs involved it is not particularly credible in current circumstances. Air strikes are also possible, but if Washington is not able to promise South Korea sufficient ground troops to prevent unacceptable harm to its people-again, credibly-to a potential North Korean invasion, it could be very difficult to get Seoul on board. And moving seriously against the North without support from the South could permanently harm relations with a South Korea that is more and more skeptical toward its alliance with the United States.
The credibility of America's military option is also a problem in dealing with key powers in the region and elsewhere. Because China, Japan, Russia and many European governments are more inclined toward a softer line vis-à-vis North Korea, having a military strategy that the U.S. could pursue virtually alone if necessary may be indispensable in persuading some of them to adopt stronger positions. This could be much more difficult if the perception that the United States is tied down in Iraq is allowed to become widespread. Reasonable people can debate whether any military option is appropriate in stopping North Korea's nuclear and other weapons programs and its proliferation of arms and technology-but the absence of this option imposes very real limits on U.S. flexibility in managing a serious crisis.
What can be done? Taking into account the level of America's investment of blood, treasure and prestige in Iraq, a sudden U.S. withdrawal would be costly and unwise. The Bush Administration can and should, however, redouble its efforts to engage the United Nations and American allies in winning the peace in Iraq. The Administration's two stated objectives for the war, ending Saddam Hussein's control over weapons of mass destruction and ending Hussein's brutal rule, have been achieved. America's most substantial interests in Iraq today are to ensure the emergence of a stable, representative and non-threatening government and to promote economic development as an instrument to that end. These aims are widely shared and there are few reasons to insist on an excessive U.S. role in managing Iraq's transition when the United States faces more pressing challenges. Contrary to what some seem to think, Iraq is not any kind of "prize" for America; on the contrary, it is a burden that we should be eager to share.
Despite the fact that North Korea was far closer to a nuclear arsenal than Iraq-and that its no less brutal regime has starved to death far more of its own citizens than Saddam Hussein gassed or tortured-the Bush Administration pursued war with Iraq, and complicated U.S. relationships with key partners in the process, as the clock ticked relentlessly and Pyongyang's nuclear programs advanced. Now that Saddam Hussein is in hiding, if not dead, and Iraq's military and industrial infrastructure is in American hands, it is time to shift the focus of U.S. attention to North Korea.
Paul Saunders is Director of the Nixon Center