Why Iran and North Korea Are Different

U.S. policy in the last couple of presidential eras has demonstrated complete acceptance of North Korea’s megalomaniacal leadership attaining nuclear weapons. In 2003 though, make-believe weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were enough of a threat to start an illegal war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, cost unfathomable amounts of money, and is still wreaking havoc on Americans, Iraqis, and the region. And now again, a nuclear program in Iran that everybody agrees has no military component is worth the world’s most crippling sanctions, provocative militarism, and outright calls for preemptive war.

Without endorsing the whole thing, Micah Zenko at CFR:

As it turned out, the existence of several North Korean nuclear weapons were both tolerable and acceptable to the Bush administration. The collective weight of the Six Party Talks, economic sanctions, and positive incentives in the form of fuel oil or security guarantees failed to convince the North Korean regime to abandon their nuclear program and accept intrusive verification. As Arthur Brown, CIA East Asian division chief during the first term of the Bush administration, asked pointedly: “If you were Kim [Jong-il], would you give up the only thing that has protected your regime from collapse?”

Although former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld placed two dozen B-52 bombers and B-1 bombers on high alert to deter “opportunism,” the Bush administration never seriously considered a preemptive attack on North Korean nuclear facilities for a number of reasons: the military was busy with regime change in Iraq; South Korean citizens would have borne the brunt of retaliatory artillery and rocket attacks; and there were no guarantees that airstrikes would effectively destroy the plutonium or any assembled nuclear warheads. As a Bush administration official readily acknowledged in December 2002: “I’m not saying we don’t have military options. I’m just saying we don’t have good ones.”

There are of course two things that make Washington ambivalent towards the nukes of the psychotic authoritarian North Korean government and at the same time preemptively outraged and bombastic towards the civilian nuclear programs of Iraq and Iran: Israel and oil.