Korean Crisis Befuddles Bush

It has been a year since George W. Bush announced the existence of an “axis of evil.” The speechwriter who crafted that frightening phrase for last year’s State of the Union address, currently out marketing his memoir, has been unavailable to fashion the sequel. That leaves the President and his aides to figure out how he should explain American foreign policy. Specifically, he will have to tell Americans why his administration is preparing for war on Iraq, which has no nuclear weapons, and preparing for talks with North Korea, which probably has several and declares its determination to build more.

The “evil” of the regimes in Baghdad, Pyongyang and Tehran (remember the mullahs?) is not in dispute. The “axis” notion is even more doubtful than a year ago, however, when even the dullest listeners probably remembered that Iran and Iraq are mortal enemies, and that North Korea has no significant connection with either of those governments. More doubtful, because we now know-thanks to Seymour Hersh’s reporting in The New Yorker -that the North Korean nuclear program was most likely made possible by America’s dubious ally, Pakistan, rather than by any of our usual enemies.

There are some obvious ways in which Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il resemble each other. Both are homicidal gangsters in ideological drag. Both operate repressive police states that are among the world’s worst violators of human rights. Both are willing to reduce their people to starvation in pursuit of nationalist ambitions. Both are potentially dangerous to their neighbors and to world peace. Both are inveterate liars who have reneged on previous agreements, mocked treaty obligations and flouted international law.

Aside from their relative levels of strategic weaponry, there are also several noticeable differences between Iraq and North Korea that will complicate Mr. Bush’s argument. Few of those contrasts bolster his case for immediate and pre-emptive “regime change” brought about by American arms in Baghdad.

Under allied military pressure endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, Saddam Hussein has admitted more than 100 weapons inspectors. They are moving around his country with equipment that can detect minute amounts of radiation as well as chemical and biological residues.

(Contrary to predictions that they would be unable to find anything, incidentally, the U.N. inspectors uncovered a dozen empty chemical-warhead missiles. The White House declared this discovery “serious and troubling,” which suggests the new inspection regime is capable of accomplishing its task.)

On any given day, Saddam’s government drops its objection to an intrusive method of scrutiny. It has allowed unannounced visits to his grotesque palaces and says it will permit unaccompanied interviews of his military scientists. The Iraqi government consistently denies, truthfully or not, that it possesses any weapons of mass destruction or that it intends to construct any, let alone use them. Iraq has not threatened any of its neighbors since its forces were expelled from Kuwait by the allied coalition in 1991. It possesses no intercontinental ballistic missiles, and never has.

Meanwhile, the North Koreans have thrown out the U.N. inspectors on Dec. 31, rejected every proposal to allow inspectors into its nuclear facilities and withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. On any given day, the authorities in Pyongyang issue belligerent “warnings” to the United States that amount to a threat of war. The North Korean government’s representatives confessed to American diplomats last fall that they have built nuclear weapons with enriched uranium.

North Korea also possesses an unknown number of intercontinental ballistic missiles. We know this with certainty because Kim’s military tested one by shooting it over northern Japan in August 1998. Apparently they’re working on a new version of the same weapon, except with a longer range that can reach Alaska. The other day, they announced that they plan to resume testing their missiles unless Washington changes its ways.

Yet the Bush administration’s demeanor in the face of these provocations is bland, mild, almost pacifist. The first instinct at the White House was to conceal what Pyongyang had been doing. Then, after a few tough-talking tantrums and denunciations, Washington reverted to expressing “disappointment,” dispatching emissaries, hinting at negotiations and, most recently, promising aid and perhaps diplomatic recognition.

Toward the Iraqis, who have no strategic weapons, the Bush administration’s response has been increasingly implacable and ominous. Every move by Baghdad is denounced as too little, too late, too clever and too uncooperative, as the U.S. deploys tens of thousands of troops, thousands of tons of weaponry and hundreds of aircraft in the Gulf region.

Having displayed their disdain for international arms-control efforts, the Bush hawks are now proving to any and every despot that the United States only respects and placates power-and that power grows out of an atomic warhead.