Under the Snow

January 8, 2003

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.

At the time of the axis of evil remark, the most common criticism of it was that there was no connection between the two Middle Eastern/Muslim members on the one hand, and North Korea on the other-hence there was no axis. Now, what have we learned since? First that Pakistan contributed extensively to North Korea's nuclear program, and then that Yemen is an active customer of North Korean missiles (and heaven knows what else). No link between North Korea and the Muslim cauldron of the Middle East and Southwest Asia? Indeed. Who-tell me again-should be feeling contrite?

The toughest policy problem before us, however, is neither Iraq nor North Korea but Iran. Iraq is, or ought to be, a no-brainer; North Korea is very hard, so we know that it must be handled with patient but determined and creative diplomatic care. Iran is a special policy nightmare, for several mingled reasons.

Most important, Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons has yet to reach a threshold of achievement, so the same strategic logic that pertains to Iraq-that it is very much in U.S. interests to keep it below the nuclear threshold-also pertains to Iran. But Iran is not in violation of the NPT, IAEA safeguards or any other related obligation, and it has not been as obviously bad a neighbor as has Iraq. So neither law nor political circumstance parallels military-strategic logic to justify military action.

Within this tension is another for, U.S. action to keep Iraq below the nuclear threshold would motivate the Iranians to get above it. Removing the potential Iraqi nuclear threat might seem to reduce the urgency of Iran's quest, but the demonstration of U.S. power and freedom of action against Iraq would redouble Iran's determination to escape an equally vulnerable position. Looking around the axis of evil these days, the Iranians would much prefer to hold North Korea's cards than to hold Iraq's. This means that a counter-proliferation action against Iraq bears pro-proliferation implications for Iran.

With such tensions come many uncertainties. Some in the administration see Iran on the verge of revolutionary change; but almost no expert on Iran agrees with them. If the Iranian street is close to overthrowing the Islamic Republic, then any strident U.S. policy toward Iran could backfire, making opposition to the present regime seem unpatriotic-and the administration has avoided such stridency for the most part. But if the present Iranian regime is not so threatened, then time is arguably on its side in the proliferation threshold race, not ours; and too quiet an American policy could then help the regime. We do not know which view is correct; nor do we know how U.S. boots on the ground in Baghdad would affect Iranian internal political dynamics. Arguments can be made for several possibilities, but evidence is almost equally sparse for all of them.

Finally, whatever the administration does with regard to Iran engages Russian interests and a longstanding irritant in U.S.-Russian relations: Russian support for Iranian nuclear projects. As Stephen Sestanovich makes clear in the current issue of The National Interest (Winter 2002/03), it is an irritant that cannot but affect the broader evolution of U.S.-Russian relations, and of course that is important in its own right.

For all these reasons, the range of imaginable U.S. policies with regard to Iran is wider than is the case either for Iraq or North Korea. Here the logic of military pre-emption does apply but, unlike the Iraqi case, with virtually none of the critical political and diplomatic context to sustain it as a realistic policy. If U.S. policy on the Iranian nuclear danger has been set, it is nowhere obvious what its operative parameters are.