October 18, 2002

– Kim Jong-il's nuclear 'trick or treat' may nix Iraq war plans

Another day, another threat of war – this time on the North Korean front. Surely Pyongyang's startling admission that indeed it is actively pursuing the nuclear option – "and more powerful things as well," according to this New York Times report – has pulled the rug out from under the War Party, even as the U.S. gets ready to move on Iraq. Saddam, we are told, may have "weapons of mass destruction" at some point down the line, but North Korea has now upped the ante considerably by strongly hinting that they already have them, with the unspoken addendum: and so whaddaya gonna do about it?

The Times reports that the bluster has suddenly gone out of the American hegemon:

"Yet the administration's demands on North Korea tonight were muted. 'The United States is calling on North Korea to comply with all of its commitments under the Nonproliferation Treaty and to eliminate its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable manner,' an American official said. There was no discussion of the consequences if that appeal was ignored, even though the announcement came only hours after President Bush (news - web sites) issued some of his toughest and most ominous-sounding warnings yet to Iraq."

"Muted" is right. This White House doesn't want to go down in history as the administration that presided over the vaporization of Tokyo and large segments of South Korea. How they will prevent that outcome is bound to take up more of their attention, as the crisis worsens, and leave room for little else. The President recently received Ariel Sharon at the White House, and reportedly promised that the Israelis will get at least two weeks notice before we attack Iraq. If I were Sharon, I wouldn't hold my breath.

The U.S. is pretty cocky when it comes to pushing around a dilapidated fifth-rate military power like Iraq: Saddam's army is in far worse shape than it was a decade ago, when it was decimated during Gulf War I. But the Stalinist Sparta of North Korea is a far different matter. Aside from its large but malnourished land force of nearly two million, the world's last Stalinists have developed long-range missiles capable of hitting Tokyo. Its fighter planes are short of fuel: but they're also only 6 minutes from Seoul, the South Korean capital. Washington must also contend with the fiercely nationalistic and grim defensiveness of the Hermit Kingdom, developed in response to a series of foreign invasions – or maybe it's something in the water. At any rate, compared to North Korea's "Great Leader" Kim Jong-il, Saddam Hussein is a veritable pussycat.

Oh, the irony and symbolic fecklessness of our foreign policy! The White House was so confident, the chickenhawks were so arrogant, the warhawks were so gung-ho to go in there and prove that the U.S. of A was going to assert its global hegemony after the humbling shock of 9/11 – and it all went up in smoke in an instant, as the North Korean monster rose from hidden depths and took the Bushies by surprise. Just in time for Halloween….

This trick is no treat. Back in 1994, CNN reported these comments by then-Deputy Defense secretary John Deutch:

"We do not want to have North Korea think that they can steal a march on us when we are involved in Iraq."

Don't look now, but that is precisely what has happened.

The Clinton administration's solution to this problem was a strategic perspective that guaranteed the ability to fight two and a half wars at once. But as CNN correspondent Jamie McIntyre remarked at the time of Deutch's comment:

"Winning two wars depends on getting to two wars, something the U.S. now can't do without months of warning."

The Bushies had no clue: when the U.S. ambassador confronted the North Koreans with the evidence of a secret nuclear program, they denied it initially. But when they came back the next day, the North Korean delegation did the unexpected: they admitted it.

Having abandoned the two-and-a-half wars doctrine of the Clinton era, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his clique of civilian defense intellectuals were intent on "modernizing" the military for a "new era" of unchallenged American hegemony. It was all to be based on high technology, and the assumption that no single threat of any economic or geopolitical weight could arise in the foreseeable future. There were no obstacles on the road to empire. As one commentator put it:

"Nixing the 'two war' military will help accelerate the Pentagon's process of change, moving from defending a world that was to promoting peace in a world that is."

But not so fast….

This developing crisis on the Korean peninsula vastly complicates the projected Iraq attack on two levels: militarily and also on the diplomatic-political front. Aside from having to face obvious logistical and readiness issues, the White House now has to deal with the North Koreans' open defiance. For the conquest of Iraq was supposed to establish the precedent of the new U.S. doctrine of "pre-emption," i.e. America's imperial prerogative to take out anyone, anywhere, at any time, on the mere suspicion that they might one day pose a threat. Now, with the North Koreans openly thumbing their noses at the would-be American hegemon, flaunting their nukes and their defiance, how can the U.S. continue to issue ultimatums to the considerably less well-armed-and-dangerous Saddam? The Bushies found out about the North Korean nuclear gambit 12 days ago, just as the congressional debate over the Iraq war was gearing up. They sat on the information until the vote was in – because it would have entirely undermined their position. Why come down on Iraq when the crazed North Koreans really do have "weapons of mass destruction"? This is a question the Bushies are clearly unprepared to answer.

Our war-hawks have no one but themselves to blame. The Washington Post cites a U.S. official who, in noting the genesis of the crisis, "said the North Koreans decided to go ahead with the program after President Bush identified the country as a member of an international axis of evil." The U.S. maintains that the evidence predates the President's infamous speech, but no one can doubt that naming North Korea as a potential target of American wrath must have convinced the already paranoid "Great Leader" that he'd better prepare for war.

Back in March of last year, I predicted that the Bush administration's undoing of the reconciliation process between the two Koreas was a sign of impending disaster. No sooner had Colin Powell announced that the process begun under the Clinton regime would continue with the new administration then the President contradicted him less than 24 hours later during talks with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.

It seems like two decades rather than two years ago that the two Koreas were on the verge of an historic reconciliation. The leaders of a divided nation met for the first time in half a century, and many analysts were confident that Kim Jong-il had decided North Korea must avoid complete economic collapse by opting for a "soft landing." The Bushies put the kibosh on that, however, and then pushed the Koreans over the edge with the "axis of evil" nonsense. Powell has far too much class to say "I told you so" – but, then again, he doesn't have to….

In the typically hyperbolic style of the "mainstream" news media these days, Bush's confrontation with Iraq was being characterized as comparable to the Cuban missile crisis. Of course it wasn't anything even close – but the Korean crisis is. The North Koreans could wipe out any number of Japanese cities with the push of a button, and have demonstrated this ability by shooting missiles over the Sea of Japan.

This is what the "pre-emptive" triumphalism of George W. Bush & Co. has brought us – or, rather, brought the Japanese and South Korean people. As is usual with the civilian chickenhawks who rule the "Defense" Department roost, other people will have to pay the price of their hubris. To anyone related or close to U.S. military personnel stationed in South Korea or Japan, I strongly suggest that you give them a call, write them a note, and tell them you love them. This may be your last chance.

The neocon dweeb who coined the "axis of evil" phrase is no longer in the President's employ, having been relieved of his post by a White House that doesn't take to people who blow their own horns too loudly. However, the damage was not in the phraseology, but the policy – and a lot more heads will have to roll, on a much higher level, before the real roots of the unfolding foreign policy disaster are excised.

With the military already rising in open opposition to the war plans of our civilian chickenhawks, who envision a "cakewalk" in Iraq, the prospect of a two-front war is no doubt throwing the Pentagon into a panic. It is their worst nightmare come true. Already in open rebellion against this administration's new strategic perspective, the generals took the field against their own commander-in-chief over the question of war with Iraq – and now they are confronted with this. The grumbling in the barracks is going to get louder, and pressure on the administration to put off the Iraq attack indefinitely, at least until this current crisis blows over, is bound to ratchet up.

Tripped up by their own hopped-up rhetoric, the War Party faces a strategic conundrum. After all the crowing during the Clinton years of America as "the indispensable nation," and, more recently, the out-and-out neo-imperialism of the chickenhawks, who are already divvying up the Iraqi spoils, somebody has finally called the Americans' bluff.

We may have been saved from the prospect of war in the Middle East – only to be faced with an even greater crisis on the other side of the Asian landmass. We are out of the frying pan, and into the fire – and isn't that the story of empires throughout history?

– Justin Raimondo

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.