Monday, March 12, 2007

Going Down Memory Lane Part One

With all of the recent focus on officials and candidates coming clean with what they said about the Iraq War--and more importantly, when they said it, I also want to apply a standard of strict scrutiny to my own writings.

I was not an opponent of the Iraq War (in the sense either of a Kucinich from the left or a Scowcroft from the right). But I would describe myself as being skeptical about the timing and aims.

Paul Saunders and I wrote the following on January 15, 2003, before the war began. This is an excerpt of an essay entitled, "Pyongyang and American Priorities":

Needless to say, the United States is currently engaged in a massive military deployment to the Persian Gulf and seems likely to be at war with Iraq in the near future. Suggestions that North Korea should be a greater priority for America have generally been dismissed with the superficial statement that the United States has passed the point of no return in dealing with Baghdad and must maintain its primary focus of attention on Iraq. Apart from budgetary and logistical considerations, this position has also been buttressed by the self-serving but not entirely false argument that a decisive victory in Iraq could increase American leverage over Pyongyang. At the same time, significant attention has centered on the question of whether or not the North Korean situation should be considered a "crisis." The important U.S. interests at stake deserve more serious discussion.

The starting point of any such dialogue must be the recognition that Washington has considerably more options than most people seem prepared to recognize. We may eventually reach the conclusion that many of them cannot be exercised at an acceptable cost—but this should be a reasoned conclusion based upon careful analysis rather than an a priori judgment.

The Bush Administration’s increasingly seems to be attempting to appear sufficiently flexible in dealing with Pyongyang to buy time to resolve U.S. concerns about Iraq. As suggested above, the two principal advantages of this approach are that we are well into both the diplomatic and military processes necessary to deal with the problem and that a (presumed) decisive defeat of Iraq could discourage Kim Jong-il from testing American resolve. The greatest cost of this approach is that it could create the impression that possessing even one or two nuclear weapons is an effective deterrent in dealing with the United States. Also, it is not clear how quickly Washington could shift gears to deal harshly with North Korea even in the wake of the rapid and impressive victory widely expected against Iraq. The challenges of "the day after" may well be greater than those of the conquest itself and could produce their own unexpected constraints.

One of many alternatives to the "Iraq-first" approach would be to give United Nations weapons inspectors more time to work in Iraq—a move that would be welcomed by America's allies, including Britain—and to focus more squarely on North Korea in the interim. Saddam Hussein does not currently have nuclear weapons, and he can make little progress in obtaining while inspectors are roaming around his country. Moreover, he is too much a survivor to take provocative action with U.S. troops poised to invade. Finally, the longer the inspectors work, the stronger the case against Iraq becomes. And as unappealing as it may be to many in east Asia, and particularly to South Korea, the United States could do substantial damage to North Korea’s fledgling nuclear arsenal and its supporting infrastructure with a very modest military force. A brutally honest explanation of this fact, combined with a plan to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program and discuss economic or other assistance, might be successful. If not, Washington should certainly consider a unilateral attack on Kim’s nuclear facilities.

Of course, such a strategy is not without its own attendant risks. The greatest potential danger is of a North Korean attack on South Korea while considerable U.S. forces are deployed in the Middle East. The American relationship with Seoul could also be severely weakened—though the degree and duration of the damage would clearly depend heavily on the outcome. Escalating its conflict with the United States by attacking the South would be suicidal for North Korea and Kim Jong-il’s regime, and all indicators seem to suggest that the Beloved Leader is interested in perpetuating his rule rather than presiding over its obliteration.

We present this outline, however, with the intent to be illustrative rather than definitive. The United States cannot allow itself to be locked into a narrow course of action vis-à-vis North Korea simply because it has begun a deployment in the Gulf.

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