Why Bush can't tell the truth about North Korea.

Military analysis.
Jan. 7 2003 5:37 PM

The Unspeakable Truth

What Bush dares not say about North Korea.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The question is on everyone's mind: Why is President Bush rushing into war with Iraq yet hanging loose on North Korea? Why is pre-emptive attack necessary against a country that's crawling with U.N. inspectors while nonchalant containment suffices against the world's most insular, ruthless regime, which is also openly building long-range missiles and atom bombs? Kim Jong-il's winter-solstice pop-up surprise has certainly put Bush in an awkward box. With the U.N. inspectors reporting to the Security Council by the end of the month (and, not coincidentally, U.S. troops by then fully mobilized), this should be a time for Bush to tie up loose ends, shore up the leery, and convey a clarity of purpose. Instead, even his most stalwart allies are starting to wonder about his priorities.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan writes Slate's "War Stories" column.
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In fact, there are reasons for favoring military confrontation with Iraq but not with North Korea—some of them are even good reasons—but most of them can't easily be discussed in public, not by officials anyway, without setting off further contradictions and alarm bells.

The most basic of these reasons is this: We're going to war against Iraq because we can; we're not going to war against North Korea because we can't. News reports have quoted officials hinting at this on background, but it would be a dicey argument for them to spell out. First, it's a bit too stark for comfort, given all the moral argumentation undergirding the mobilization. Members of the Bush administration don't want to say, in effect, "Let's enforce international law, topple tyrants, and keep terrible weapons out of bad men's hands—but only if the bad man can't beat us up too badly in the process." Second, to make this argument would acknowledge that Saddam Hussein probably doesn't have weapons of mass destruction—or not enough of them to do much damage. If Bush believed Saddam really did have vast, usable stockpiles of these weapons, would he be so keen to start a war, knowing (as CIA Director George Tenet testified in congressional hearings last year) that Saddam would likely set off as many of them as he could, like a suicide bomber writ large, as his regime started to crumble under the invasion?

Of course, the argument could be made that North Korea shows what could happen if Saddam is not toppled and proceeds to build these weapons himself. We are essentially being deterred by Kim Jong-il. Do we want to sit around for a few years so Saddam Hussein can also deter us and use his own arsenal as a protective cover for aggression?

One reason Bush can't make this argument is that the rationale for going to war, at least under the terms of the U.N. resolution, is the false statements and omissions that Saddam Hussein has made about his nuclear-, biological-, and chemical-weapons programs—in other words, the possibility that he has such weapons. You can say we're going to war because Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. You can say we're going to war to keep him from developing weapons of mass destruction. You can't really say both at the same time.

Another problem with this line of argument is that, if sheer practicality were the rationale for attacking Iraq and dealing in some other way with North Korea, other leaders, especially those who might run up against our interests, would gain a valuable lesson from this exhibition—that is, the best way to avoid an American attack is to get yourself an atom bomb, quickly and secretly (maybe you can buy one from North Korea).

There are other equally awkward reasons that might support invading Baghdad but not Pyongyang. Oil is an obvious factor—not so much in a crudely Marxian sense as in a general sense that everything in Middle Eastern politics is wrapped up, to some degree, in oil. U.S. officials tend to avoid mentioning this factor, in part to avoid appearing overly pecuniary, but in much larger part to avoid explicitly entangling the issue of Iraq with precisely those larger issues of Middle Eastern politics—those issues being the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the future of Saudi Arabia.

The latter issue constitutes an additional unstated argument for invading Iraq. Though few officials speak of it, even off the record, there is a train of thought, in certain quarters of the Pentagon and the State Department, that large numbers of U.S. soldiers should not remain based in Saudi Arabia for much longer. Our military presence provides a handy target for terrorists (rhetorically, if not physically) and aligns us too tightly with a corrupt kingdom from which we might wisely begin to seek distance. However, it would be unsafe and unsettling, for the entire region, to pull out of Saudi Arabia while Saddam Hussein is still in power. Saddam must go so that we can go. This may be the best rationale for "regime change" in Iraq, although, for obvious reasons, you will never hear any official articulate it. This rationale also marks Iraq as a unique case, which therefore allows North Korea to be considered as a unique case as well. Which means policy in one place doesn't necessarily have anything to do with policy in the other place—though it would be nice, in each place, if Bush did present a coherent policy.

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