Lost in the Folds of Iraq and North Korea

A few decades ago, a clich? invaded Washington’s bureaucracies. It was a clich? that many of us self-decreed sophisticates in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment came to use, and then shamelessly overuse, to belittle anyone (sometimes a superior, more often a competitor in another agency) who happened to disagree with the one’s own views. Low-voiced comments about this or that #$&* SOB being “way behind the power curve” filtered into government conference rooms, dining rooms, and even hallways. Until it succumbed to parody from the crescendo of overuse, this was truly a multi-purpose clich?. It sounded so good that some of us would, pompously and with just the right profession of cynicism and self-deprecation, apply it in a less insulting way to ourselves. As in, “We can’t afford to fall behind the power curve on this one [i.e., any issue that seemed important at the moment], so here’s what I think we ought to do.”

The “power curve” itself normally went undefined, but the very word “power” elicited, as was intended, knowing nods and narrowed eyes suggesting that most users or hearers of the clich?, at least those who valued their positions in the bureaucracy, wished to be seen as hard pragmatists with a lesser interest in “unrealistic” ethics, morals, or principles. Not surprisingly, the dominance of this clich? coincided with the early 1970s, the last years of the Nixon administration.

Today there are grounds for hope that the Bush administration itself is already falling irretrievably behind the power curve of its own amoral and unprincipled pragmatism. The immediate reason for such hope arises from the embarrassment and bumbling inside the administration over the inconsistencies between U.S. policies toward Iraq on the one hand and toward North Korea on the other. We need to look at recent history to see why recent events concerning North Korea, assuming they are ultimately resolved without an East Asian nuclear holocaust, should be seen as a positive development by those of us who want peace and justice in the Middle East as well as in East Asia in the next few decades, rather than more wars initiated by the United States.

Early in 2001, far-right, hawkish, and violence-prone governments took power at roughly the same time in both the U.S. and Israel. The leaders of the two new governments had already developed a very good personal and political chemistry with each other. The events of September 11 further strengthened the ties between them as they became ever-firmer allies in the War on Terrorism and quickly agreed on each other’s highly selective definitions of who were terrorists and evil-doers (and who were not). A few months later, Bush lumped Iraq, Iran, and North Korea into an Axis of Evil in his January 2002 state-of-the-union address to Congress. Then, egged on by Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and a small but very influential group of pro-Likud neo-cons scattered through the administration, as well as by U.S. Christian fundamentalist leaders who solidly support both Bush’s and the Sharon government’s present policies, the president spent much of the year 2002 ratcheting up the pressures for war against Iraq. Actually, the neo-con officials in the U.S. and Likud leaders in Israel have been pressing for the ouster of the present Iraqi government for the past decade.

On the issue of Iraq, disagreement within the administration, largely from Secretary of State Powell and a few former officials like Brent Scowcroft, has slowed the Bush drive toward war since the early fall of 2002. But so far at least, Powell has been willing to confront Bush only on the issue of unilateralism. Right now, the odds on what will happen over the next month or two run something like this.

First, there is a tiny chance that in response to a low-key Arab campaign, Saddam Hussein will take up a proposal that he resign and accept sanctuary in some Arab land. The U.S. conceivably could then decide it was impossible to go to war. Not a good bet.

Second, a larger but still pretty minuscule chance exists that a successful coup attempt against Saddam will take place and bring about regime change, thus putting off at least temporarily Washington’s need for war.

Third, a considerably greater but still less than fifty-fifty chance exists that the current inspection scenario will play out to an impasse in which so many of the nations now on the U.N. Security Council will refuse to support the U.S., and Colin Powell will oppose Bush so strongly, that Bush himself will back off and at least postpone a war for some months or an entire year.

Fourth and most likely (here the odds are definitely greater then fifty-fifty), the Bush administration will start a war against Iraq in the next 30 to 50 days.

So how is it possible to have any optimism about this situation? Just look at where we stand. The Bush administration really wants this war against Iraq for reasons in no way altruistic: reasons having to do (1) with oil, (2) with the U.S. drive for global domination, and (3) with Israel (in the belief, first, that getting rid of Saddam Hussein will enhance Israel’s position in the Middle East and, second, that supporting the Sharon government’s own strong desire for the war will also strengthen Bush’s domestic 2004 reelection bid). Bush does not want to talk about any of these factors, and above all he certainly does not want to advertise the fact that he desires a war in part because the present leadership of Israel wants it. Instead, the Bush administration has essentially lied to the American people and the rest of the world by trying to sell the war on two other grounds that Bush himself almost certainly regards as less important: the need for Iraq to disarm and give up all weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and an alleged desire to turn Iraq into a democracy. Particularly on disarmament, the administration has carried out for months an intense propaganda operation to persuade people that this is THE issue we must be ready to kill for and to launch a preemptive war over.

How, you might ask, could preventing the further spread of WMD, particularly nuclear weapons, around the world be considered by anyone in his right mind a “less important” issue?

The answer is quite simple. Except as a propaganda tool, every U.S. administration since Harry Truman’s has in practice made the spread of nuclear weapons, the major type of WMD, a less important issue than the short-term perceived needs of U.S. national security. That’s close to 58 years now. No administration has ever been willing even to discuss giving up the United States’ own nuclear weapons. In these same years, however, most U.S. leaders and practically every American foreign policy or intelligence “expert” who ever worked on the nuclear-proliferation issue understood that, given this cast-in-concrete U.S. policy, preventing the further spread of such weapons among either friends or foes over the long run was impossible. The result is that over the past half-century, the U.S. has badly botched, and been completely hypocritical about, its alleged policy of opposing nuclear proliferation. The administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who made the most noise against proliferation, are regarded by the Arab and Muslim worlds as the most hypocritical of all, because they acquiesced in Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons during the 1960s.

Let’s move nearer to the present. As early as March 2001, the Bush administration went through a phase of blaming Russia for helping other nations to obtain nuclear weapons. On the 23rd of that month, Donald Rumsfeld stated on national television, “Let’s be very honest about what Russia is doing. Russia is an active proliferator. They are part of the problem. They are selling and assisting countries like Iran and North Korea and India with these technologies which are threatening other people, including the United States”

Russia continues to this day providing aid to Iran, and U.S. criticism of Russia for doing so also continues, although since September 11 the rhetoric has cooled because Moscow is now Bush’s good ally in the War on Terror. But such statements as Rumsfeld’s have made a very unfavorable impression in nations that do not entirely support U.S. policies. They believe the United States itself has been an “active proliferator” since World War II, most particularly with respect to Israel. Rumsfeld and most U.S. policymakers, past and present, seem not to understand how profoundly mistrusted we are because of our lenient attitude toward Israel’s nuclear capability. Many other nations will never accept a status quo that perpetuates Israeli possession of nuclear weapons and at the same time prevents them from ever acquiring such weapons. They will always be suspicious that the U.S. really opposes nuclear proliferation only for its enemies, while acting too often as a hidden enabler of proliferation for its friends.

This entire confusing mess has finally come home to roost at the beginning of 2003. The U.S. has spent years pursuing inconsistent policies on proliferation, in practice downgrading the importance of the issue while noisily playing up its importance in propaganda. And the propaganda volume control has been turned to the very maximum in order to obfuscate the real reasons why the administration wants war with Iraq.

Now, just as crunch-time is arriving for Iraq, along comes North Korea to embarrass the big, hypocritical bully and ramp up quiet eruptions of what must be very satisfying schadenfreude in more nations of the world than Washington can easily count. It’s not worth bothering even to discuss the weird statements coming out of Rome on the Potomac that attempt to explain why we cannot use our shiny new preemptive war strategy on North Korea right now, even though in military terms that nation would appear to be a considerably greater danger than Iraq to its own neighbors and even to the U.S. None of the arguments swirling around Washington address in a meaningful way the most important points we should be talking about.

The first point that needs more discussion is that, even if the U.S. quickly and successfully polishes off Iraq, in an immediate military sense anyway, and then a few weeks later goes and does the same to North Korea, the world has already seen the most aggressive U.S. administration since Teddy Roosevelt blink, and blink big time. The perceived value and reliability of the U.S. as a protective shield against potential enemies of our allies will inevitably diminish. In this regard, think immediately of Japan and Taiwan, which look on the U.S. as a shield against both North Korea and, more importantly, China. Think also, in a somewhat longer time frame, of other Southeast Asian countries from Thailand to Australia that might question the “stayability” of the U.S. Whatever else happens, a sea-change is probable in the U.S. relationship with Asia. (But think too of positive changes, both in Asia and elsewhere, that might be more likely to emerge over time than seemed possible even a few weeks ago. A multipolar world has its pluses.)

The second point to be aware of is that, if the stalemate between North Korea and the U.S. drags on for more than a few weeks, other nations in the world will see even greater value in having their own nuclear weapons, and perhaps also other types of WMD. The Bush administration can argue all it wants that it does not have to hurry in solving the North Korean problem. Its arguments will be nonsense. Each week that passes will to some degree increase the likelihood that one nation or another, or even some subnational group, will initiate or expand a WMD program. At a minimum, nuclear weapons alone will have made it possible for North Korea to stand up to the U.S. for a longer period than most of us up to now would have thought possible.

(At the unthinkable opposite extreme, of course, if either side should actually use nuclear weapons in an effort to resolve this confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea, the long-term results would be completely unpredictable. The only useful thing one can say about this contingency is that the U.S. should not start any conventional military action that might lead to the use of nuclear weapons, and it categorically should never be the first to use nuclear weapons.)

A third point: North Korea has made it clearer than ever that in a world of nation-states, the only world we’ll have for some time to come, small countries are increasingly able to obtain nuclear weapons and other WMD. One small country, Israel, got them in the late 1960s, but its ties with an acquiescent United States made it a special case. North Korea already has become, or is on the verge of becoming, the second small country to acquire nuclear weapons. (Pakistan and India are both much larger and more powerful, and not really in the category of “small.”) The Bush administration is seriously in error if it believes that it can ever so dominate the rest of the world militarily that it can suppress all nuclear and other WMD threats against itself. The best rational judgment one can make is that the opportunity for global domination is already lost to this and any future administration. Not only the threats but also the actuality of further nuclear and other WMD proliferation will almost certainly increase in the next few years. The present events involving North Korea, and the U.S. reaction thereto, only encourage such a development.

A fourth point: The inconsistencies of U.S. policy and tactics toward Iraq and North Korea will undoubtedly increase suspicions among governments of the world that Washington’s emphasis on immediate disarmament as critical in the case of Iraq is really a false issue. These suspicions, to the extent the peace movement in the U.S can emphasize and publicize them, should make it harder for the Bush administration to start the war against Iraq.

Brief Thoughts for the Longer Term

The argument asserted earlier that preventing further nuclear and other WMD proliferation is impossible because the U.S. refuses even to discuss eliminating its own weapons of mass destruction cries out for serious discussion and study of the “what-should-we-be-doing-that we’re-not-doing-now” variety. This single paragraph contains only a couple of suggestions. First, anyone with the chutzpah to address the issue needs to decide whether any possibility exists that the political climate in the U.S. and elsewhere can be so changed that a multilateral, global, and democratic solution to the world’s WMD problem might be reached in the next decade. Then, if the answer is yes, the person with the chutzpah has to come up with a specific plan to achieve the multilateral solution. The author of these words once tried to do that, and his specific plan is, for better or worse, summarized here on CounterPunch in an earlier article. But if the answer is no, here’s another suggestion. Do nothing. Stop making it difficult for any sovereign nation that wants them to acquire WMD. Do not antagonize other nations and peoples by arguing that you, or I, are entitled to WMD because we already have them, but you other folks, who don’t have them yet, are not entitled to them. The result will be the same in any case. The process of spreading WMD around will just occur a little more rapidly. Why irritate the rest of the world over something you can no longer prevent?

This is not written in jest. If today there is no general agreement that the world needs a multilateral, global solution to nuclear and other WMD disarmament, just possibly the increasing dangers of global chaos will bring closer the time when such a general agreement does become possible.

Bill Christison joined the CIA in 1950, and served on the analysis side of the Agency for 28 years. From the early 1970s he served as National Intelligence Officer (principal adviser to the Director of Central Intelligence on certain areas) for, at various times, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. Before he retired in 1979 he was Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, a 250-person unit. His wife Kathy also worked in the CIA, retiring in 1979. Since then she has been mainly preoccupied by the issue of Palestine. The Christison’s can be reached at: christison@counterpunch.org