Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Thursday, January 02, 2003
Ralph Peters thinks President Bush is just right to be going after Iraq and soft-pedaling North Korea. Here's his rundown of the differences between the two, and my rejoinder:

* Saddam is a power-mad bully waving a fist. Kim Jong-Il is more like a surly street-person demanding a hand-out. The Iraqi regime has visions of empire, has attacked its neighbors repeatedly, has used weapons of mass destruction repeatedly and has massacred its own citizens repeatedly. North Korea is pathetic, broke and so hungry its population is suffering genetic deterioration. It hasnt attacked anyone in 50 years, and couldnt sustain a war beyond a few wantonly destructive weeks.

Saddam still hopes to expand Iraqs borders, while North Koreas pathetic leadership is struggling desperately to survive in its self-made prison.

North Korea's territorial goal is to take over South Korea. They cannot achieve this goal so long as South Korea is firmly allied with the U.S. Anyone think that alliance is going strong now? Moreover, North Korea is to a great extent a Chinese puppet. If Beijing thought the game was up, they could remove Kim. Does anyone think China is a pathetic holdover from the last century?

But apart from that, North Korea is dangerous because they are a principal arms-supplier to the rest of the axis of evil. And there's nothing we can do to stop that short of a naval blockade, which would be an act of war.

* Iraq actively supports anti-Western terrorists, and has the resources to keep on doing it. Pyongyang has harbored terrorists in the past, but is now too frightened to sponsor them abroad.

North Korea is the principal arms supplier to the whole universe of evildoers out to kill Americans. They have clearly collaborated actively with Pakistan on missile technology, as well as with Iran and Iraq on nuclear technology. There is a reason Bush labelled them as part of the axis of evil. This is why.

* Iraq infects the worlds most troubled, volatile neighborhood. North Korea is flanked by successful or succeeding states, none of which is going to emulate Pyongyangs example of economic, social or political development.

Again, the risk is that the security architecture of Northeast Asia comes undone and China becomes the dominant power there. If North Korea goes nuclear without provoking any response, Japan has got to wonder whether it needs to go nuclear as well. Similarly, South Korea has got to wonder why they have all these American troops if North Korea is not an imminent threat. We cannot afford to let this whole system go under, and have China Finlandize the area. Peters pays no attention to this question.

* If our military is given free rein, it can bring down Saddams regime swiftly and with the casualties disproportionately among Saddams henchmen, where they belong. North Korea has nothing but a military. While the United States could defeat it decisively, the opening phase of a conflict might see North Korea slaughtering tens of thousand South Korean citizens just across the border in Seoul, in a final gesture worthy of a Hitler.

Saddam's ability to unleash death and destruction on Israel, the Gulf states, Jordan and Turkey fully equals Kim's ability to unleash death on South Korea and Japan. If we don't believe this, then why are we so upset about his WMD capabilities?

* The Iraqi problem worsens by the month. Despite sticking out their nuclear-ulcered tongue at us, the North Koreans are strategically impotent. With Saddam, its only a matter of time until he finds a way to employ his weapons of mass destruction again, perhaps through terrorists. With Kim Jong-Il, its only a matter of time until the regime

In the Middle East, time is on Saddams side. On the Korean Peninsula, time is on our side.

Time is on Saddam's side because he hasn't got the bomb yet. North Korea has already crossed that Rubicon. This is supposed to give me comfort about the North Korean situation? And how does North Korea's collapse help the United States? Do we think it will happen peacefully? If so, why? If this is how they behave when they are close to collapse, how will they behave when they are closer still?

Now would seem to be the perfect time for us to maneuver the Chinese into taking care of the Kim problem once and for all. If we could do that be asking pretty-please, that would be lovely. But I don't see why they have any reason to be forthcoming unless they think Kim is seriously risking war on the penninsula, something the Chinese emphatically do not want. Why do we think we'll get anywhere with China with an all-carrots-no-sticks policy?

* Although the Bush administrations most bilious pronouncements fail to acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (perhaps a few million) have a stake in the current system, many millions of Iraqis would welcome Saddams fall. Iraqis have, repeatedly, rebelled against Saddam. North Koreas population is so cut off from global awareness, so thoroughly repressed and, literally, starved, that it provides no counterforce against its rulers.

What is the basis for this claim? Why are Iraq's people better informed that North Korea's? Both are terrifying police states. North Koreans have huge numbers of relatives abroad who are aware that life is much, much better when out from under the thumb of the Dear Leader. But let's turn this around: a post-Saddam Iraq is surely going to be less stable than a post-Kim Korea if only because, in the latter case, we're dealing with an ethnically-unified country with a powerful neighbor to the south eager to help. Couldn't this be an argument for taking out Kim first? If this isn't an especially good argument, how much worse is it than his argument about Iraq?

* A war against Iraq is far easier and has a potentially far higher series of pay-offs, from eliminating a real and present danger, to guaranteeing an oil supply that further reduces Saudi influence, to providing the Iraqi people an opportunity to build a modern, rule-of-law, market democracy.

A successful post-Saddam Iraq might serve as inspiration to other Arab states, while embarrassing the continental Europeans, who have taken over Americas Cold War-era habit of coddling dictators everywhere. (With Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot gone, where can a French intellectual turn for love and understanding?)

And when the United States brings down one gore-slopped dictator, all the other dictators are going to improve their table manners overnight. The world needs to know that the post- 9/11 United States means business, and Iraq is the perfect place to make the strategic investment.

Okay, I'll grant you Iraq is an easier kill, mostly because they don't already have nukes, we've got them surrounded, and China isn't a factor. But (a) if the reconstruction of Iraq goes poorly, then by the same token the negative consequences are much higher than in Korea; (b) taking out Iraq dramatically strengthens the position of Iran, which is arguably a bigger threat (yeah, it might foment revolution in Iran and give us a two-fer - but guess what: it might not); and (c) taking on the "easiest kill" doesn't seem to me to be sending a great signal to the dictators of the world. The signal would seem to be: get a bomb fast; that's your best insurance against American attack.

Finally, none of this has any bearing on the justification for war, which is where the disparity between our policies on Korea and Iraq threaten to cost us diplomatically.

* North Korea isnt playing its dog-eared nuclear card from a position of strength, but because the leadership knows it holds a losing hand and has no more chips to put on the table. Imagining that Washington is constrained by challenges in the Persian Gulf, the North Koreans have convinced themselves that they have one last chance to bluff Uncle Sugar into folding. Naw. Call em. Theyre rubes in Vegas.

Um, if we don't do anything about their nuclear capability, haven't they successfully called our bluff?

The United States implied pretty strongly back in the last crisis in 1994 that we would destroy the North's nuclear reactor if they didn't end their nuclear program. We didn't destroy it, preferring to agree to a Carter-negotiated deal to build them other reactors less susceptible to bombmaking. Now they admit that they have been building nuclear weapons on the side anyhow, in violation of the agreement, and they have moved to restart the reactor we threatened to destroy in 1994. And we're going to respond with . . . economic pressure?

Remind me who's the rube in Vegas here?

* Pyongyangs nuclear tantrum is a diplomatic godsend, if we play it right. Yes, get the United Nations involved, so its busybodies have something to do while were helping Saddam transition to an early retirement. And the South Koreans need a reality check, which the North Koreans are determined to provide. By allowing South Koreas bewildered new president to try to handle the inbred hillbillies to the north his own way, well only remind the South Koreans why theyve needed us for half a century. Thanks, Kim. Youre a pal (but lose the tailor).

This could be the case, but only if the South Koreans play according to script. But the opposite script looks depressingly likely. If they decide that the real problem is American isolation of North Korea, then we could wind up being kicked out of South Korea as a way of appeasing the North. Why is Peters so confident this could not happen? As for the U.N.: this cuts both ways. If we start building a case for action against North Korea along the lines of Iraq - in other words, demand that the U.N. deliver an ultimatum or forfeit its own credibility - then we get a benefit. But that's what I've proposed doing previously in this space, and it's nothing like the diplomacy currently going on, at least above-board. If, on the other hand, we simply hand the problem off to the U.N. without leadership, then it seems to me Iraq has a very strong argument that there's a double-standard, one that will seriously undermine the credibility of our case for war against Iraq. Which is something Peters doesn't touch on at all in his piece. It's not enough for there to be good reasons to go to war with Iraq; they also need to be credible internationally. Our handling of North Korea so far has undermined that credibility, and that's a problem.

It is strikingly implausible to me that North Korea's revelations of their nuclear program and determination to escalate the crisis just happened to occur as we are preparing for war against Iraq. They are surely calculating that we can't handle both of them at once, and will therefore appease the less immediately threatening evildoer to give us time to take on the more immediate task. The bluff they've called is our bluff that we can handle two military conflicts at once. That is a major, major problem. If only to keep ourselves credible, we have got to appear - not merely say, but appear - ready to go to war to end North Korea's nuclear threat. I'm not saying we have to launch an attack tomorrow. I'm saying that the folks in Beijing have to believe we are prepared to do so if we don't see some real movement on denuclearization.

(I am less convinced of the scenario, though it is possible, that North Korea was paid off by Iraq to cause a crisis at precisely this time. But if anyone thinks that's true, it's even more of an argument for credibly fighting on both fronts at once.)