For the past year, George W. Bush has faced a choice between a real nuclear crisis and a fake nuclear crisis. Unfortunately for the nation and the world, he chose wrongly-and his mistake has made solving the real crisis more difficult and dangerous.
The phony crisis, as we now learn in greater detail with every passing news cycle, was Saddam Hussein’s alleged effort to develop nuclear weapons in Iraq. The President and the National Security Advisor, among others, told us that we faced the threat of a “mushroom cloud” over an American city if our military didn’t move swiftly to overthrow the Iraqi despot. The Vice President warned us that Saddam had already “reconstituted” his defunct nuclear program.
Administration officials cited various bits of intelligence material to support these dire assertions-including Baghdad’s importation of machined aluminum tubes, satellite images of construction activity at former nuclear sites and documents concerning the importation of partially enriched uranium “yellowcake” from impoverished Niger in Africa. In his State of the Union address, Mr. Bush adduced this evidence as part of his brief for war.
This propaganda campaign was quite effective. By last March, when our troops invaded Iraq, many Americans believed that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that he was plotting to use against the United States.
Since then, we have learned that the President’s “evidence” was cooked. The aluminum tubes weren’t for uranium enrichment. The construction had nothing to do with any nuclear program. The Niger documents were obvious forgeries. And the excuse for all this falsification is that the President and his aides, notably Condoleezza Rice, only skimmed the relevant reports provided to them by the C.I.A. and the State Department.
That might be acceptable for a legacy student at Yale, but it isn’t quite good enough for an American President.
Meanwhile, in North Korea, the real nuclear crisis has festered, with only fitful attention from the Bush administration. Kim Jong-Il has told us he is creating both uranium and plutonium weapons, and we have reason to know that the eccentric dictator isn’t bluffing. Yet when the President alluded to the dire Korean situation in his State of the Union address, it was only to justify his urge to invade Iraq. Mr. Bush declared that we “must learn the lessons of the Korean peninsula and not allow an even greater threat to rise up in Iraq.”
A greater threat? Apparently not, at least as far as our intelligence and inspection teams have determined to date. There certainly aren’t any nukes in Iraq; in fact, there aren’t any “weapons of mass destruction” that were ready for deployment, and it’s conceivable that there aren’t any at all. Pyongyang probably has one or two nuclear devices already, and may have the means to fire a bomb at a target as distant as the West Coast. As a longtime seller of missile technology, North Korea could also market its uranium, plutonium or finished bombs to our terrorist enemies.
What has Mr. Bush done about this actual threat? He has threatened Mr. Kim with further international isolation, as if that would frighten the most isolated state on earth. He has hinted at the possibility of military action, as if we are willing to sacrifice 50,000 soldiers and a million residents of Seoul. He has insisted that he won’t submit to “blackmail,” which is his response to North Korean demands for bilateral talks with the United States. He has importuned Russia and China for help, although those regimes are not eager to assist the unilateralists in the White House. By alienating Moscow and Beijing, the invasion of Iraq may have rendered the Korean problem more intractable.
Despite their irritation with the White House, other states worried by Korean instability have tried to come up with an acceptable pretext for negotiations. If the United States won’t agree to bilateral negotiations, then everyone can pretend to hold multilateral discussions instead. Then, during the breaks, the North Korean and U.S. diplomats can meet and talk at the vending machines.
Faced with a paranoid, proto-nuclear dictatorship, Mr. Bush has exacerbated the problem with loud rhetoric and dithering policy. Unable to decide whether to negotiate or to seek “regime change” in Pyongyang, his administration has done nothing useful to contain the Korean threat. The United States has no policy, no plan, no discernible purpose in its posture toward North Korea.
What would we do for Pyongyang if its leaders decided to forswear nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in a verifiable agreement with its neighbors and the United States? And what are we prepared to do if Pyongyang refuses to negotiate a secure deal? Nobody knows, including the President himself. Or if he does know, he isn’t telling anyone.
Earlier this month, the North Koreans announced that they had finished converting 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into plutonium. If you feel safer because our troops are in Baghdad, you haven’t been paying attention.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.