Tuesday, February 18, 2003

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THE ATTENTION SPAN OF GREAT POWERS: One of the critiques of the administration's Iraq policy is that going to war will divert scarce resources from the ongoing war against terrorism. I've said before this is a bogus argument, because a) U.S. policy on how to combat terrorism is pretty much set; b) seems to be generating successes, and; c) there are ample resources for both operations. To quote myself, "Gee, I thought great powers were capable of doing more than one thing at a time. That's why they're called great powers."

Upon reflection, I'd like to add one caveat to that statement. The danger with the administration's preoccupation with Iraq -- and the transatlantic fallout it creates -- is that the foreign policy principals (Bush, Rice, Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld) are devoting so much time to the diplomatic and military preparations vis-à-vis Iraq that they have no time to formulate policy responses to other crises, such as North Korea. Great powers can implement different policies in different parts of the globe because they have copious material resources. However, even great powers have difficulty crafting different policies at the same time. The same people need to approve all of these policy responses, and there are only so many hours in the day.

Therefore, one significant cost to the continued confrontation over Iraq is that the administration will, consciously or not, deal with other policy problems with an unintended posture of benign neglect. Both Andrew Sullivan and Brad Delong make this argument with regard to fiscal policy. More acute is the difficulty the administration is having juggling foreign policy crises.

Michael Gordon's NYT-online essay does a nice job of capturing this problem. The key grafs:

"Bush administration officials have been arguing that ousting the Saddam Hussein regime will serve as an object lesson of what can happen to a rogue nation that seeks weapons of mass destruction. But the North Korean nuclear breakout is sending the opposite signal to the W.M.D wannabees: if a regime does not want to be pressured by the sole remaining superpower or pushed around by a powerful neighbor, it should go nuclear as secretly and quickly as it can.....

But if the Bush administration has a better idea to stop North Korea from churning out more plutonium, it has yet to share it. When lawmakers asked Mr. Tenet how the administration would respond if Pyongyang reprocessed plutonium, he said the matter was still under discussion. The administration, it seems, does not have a policy; it has a policy review. With its eye on Iraq, the administration has also sought to downplay the North Korea issue and dispel the sense of crisis." (My bold italics)

If you want to ignore the New York Times, try ignoring Brent Scowcroft:

"We cannot afford to defer this issue. Time is on North Korea's side; each day increases North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities, enhancing its military strength and bargaining leverage -- while narrowing our options to respond. The North Korean regime will ultimately follow other dictatorships into oblivion, but this will not happen soon enough to spare us the terrible consequences of its acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, if North Korea builds up its nuclear arsenal while it sees the United States diverted by Iraq, it may enhance its ability to survive that much longer and inflict that much more harm." (my bold italics)

Critics would argue that this is exactly why the administration should not invade Iraq. I'd counter that such a course of action would actually keep Iraq on the front-burner indefinitely, since the alternative of containment requires constant high-level effort to ensure against backsliding by the UN Security Council. Attacking Iraq sooner rather than later removes the issue from the principals' table, allowing them to focus on the rest of the world.

But Bush's critics are correct to point out that the longer Iraq stays in the headlines, the more that other crises will fester from the lack of attention.

posted by Dan on 02.18.03 at 03:57 PM