Friday, October 18, 2002

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Some intellectual honesty

The Bush administration is tying itself into knots over how the situation in North Korea is difference from Iraq. This New York Times article provides a fair characterization of the claimed differences, and &c tries to demolish them. Even more disconcerting is this Times story suggesting that Pakistan has been helping North Korea.

With these revelations, I’m predicting a lot of blogs crying hypocrisy over the next few days. The neocons will ask why North Korea gets the white glove treatment instead of “pre-emption”; the left will ask why Iraq doesn’t get the white glove treatment instead of pre-emption. My thoughts:

1) The hypocrisy charge sticks. Some intellectual honesty, please: The Bush administration rationales for why North Korea is different from Iraq don’t hold up. The claim that North Korea is weaker than Iraq doesn’t stick; indeed, this Chicago Tribune story suggests the reverse is true. The argument that negotiating with North Korea sometimes bears fruit doesn’t hold up, since the best evidence that negotiations work – the 1994 Framework Agreement – is now in tatters. The hairsplitting claim that Saddam Hussein has committed genocide while the DPRK regime hasn’t rests on the dubious argument that gassing a different nationality is somehow more evil than permitting one’s own nationality to face mass starvation. Face it: both of these countries belong on the axis of evil.

2) Welcome to realpolitik. Why, then, is the U.S. going after Iraq while “consulting” on North Korea? It’s not because pre-emption can’t apply to both countries; it’s because the power politics of the Middle East are radically different from those of the Far East. Invade Iraq, and no other great power’s sphere of influence is dramatically affected; the Middle East will remain an American bailiwick for quite some time. North Korea borders China and Russia; a pre-emptive attack against Pyongyang understandably ruffles more feathers.

3) North Korea can be temporarily handed off to others -- Iraq can't. No other great power can influence Iraqi behavior, so it’s up to the United States to do what only the United States can do; threaten and use force. Geopolitics raises the costs of a pre-emptive U.S. attack on North Korea, but those same geopolitics also renders North Korea more vulnerable to multilateral pressure. On the Korean peninsula, Russia and especially China have incentives similar to ours; get the DPRK to give up its WMD capabilities. These countries value stability in the region and trade with South Korea. Chinese and Russian coercive pressure has forced North Korea into making concessions in the past. Coercion in the present won’t permanently solve the problem, but it will -- temporarily -- arrest North Korea’s nuclear program.

4) This is how foreign policy works. Neoconservatives and Wilsonians expecting consistency will cry foul, but in a world where even American resources are finite, no foreign policy doctrine will ever emerge unsullied by foreign policy practice. At the same time, I doubt any administration could ever officially provide the explanation I just did. In foreign policy, one can act in a hypocritical fashion, but never admit to acting in a hypocritical fashion.

posted by Dan on 10.18.02 at 02:14 PM