The distressing lesson which the United States is teaching the world.

"Iraq and the Unhappy Lessons of History"
February 7, 2003

Huck Gutman

           Even those who do not agree with our policy toward Iraq would do well to consider the reasoning behind its formulation. The President's advisors insist that this nation's strategic priority must be to demonstrate that the United States will use force, overwhelming force, to achieve a more secure world. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a major architect of our Middle Eastern policy, put it this way: "Our only hope ...of achieving the peaceful disarmament of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction is by having a credible threat of force behind our diplomacy." His is a modern incarnation of Theodore Roosevelt's famous dictum, "Speak softly but carry a big stick," though for the contemporary age it appears the soft-speaking appears to be dispensable. According to Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice, removing Saddam Hussein from power and eliminating his weapons of mass destruction will demonstrate to nations everywhere that the U.S. means business. America wants you to know that it will use armed force to back up its demand that the world be made safe from terror.

        There is often a huge gap between ideas and reality, although sadly the President's advisors have not realized such a disjunction applies to their grandiose plans. Nevertheless, history seems to be teaching a lesson directly contrary to the one they proposed.

        Both India and Pakistan, where I regularly publish political commentary, possess nuclear weapons. It cannot be convincingly said that either will abandon their nuclear agenda after the American use of military force against Iraq. In fact, in New Delhi and Karachi – and the capital of every other developing nation – no one looks at Iraq as a great modern lesson the danger of acquiring or possessing weapons of mass destruction. Quite the opposite. The capitals of the Third World are all looking at Pyongyang.

        North Korea is more belligerent than Iraq. With the fourth largest army in the world, it is a threat to overrun its border with South Korea with minimal opposition. It may possibly have several nuclear warheads. Time reported that Radio Pyongyang announced, in a broadcast on November 17, that “We have come to have powerful military counter-measures, including nuclear weapons." When the broadcast was repeated two days later, however, the words "come to have" were replaced by "entitled to have." According to a recent article by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, at a minimum North Korea has the technology to produce nuclear bombs, and is poised to do so.

        Certainly North Korea has the missiles required to deliver a nuclear warhead to South Korea –or beyond. According to slightly outdated figures, North Korea had 8,400 howitzers and more than 2000 rocket launchers capable of reaching Seoul, whose 10 million inhabitants live less than 40 miles from the border of the two nations. Its missiles can hit Tokyo, the world's most populous city and a center of the world economy. According to Hersh’s report, forty percent of Koreans are under arms, and they have at their disposal “more than ten thousand guns, along with twenty-five hundred rocket launchers capable of launching five hundred thousand shells an hour.” All this armament is positioned to be able to strike Seoul.

        While Saddam postures, North Korean President Kim Jong Il acts. He has withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and re-started the plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon.

        When the developing nations look at Korea, they see a country whose nuclear potential and missiles have accorded it gingerly treatment, precisely because it presents a military threat to allies of the United States. Although President Bush labeled North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of an "Axis of Evil," no voice in the American government has urged the invasion of North Korea. Although the U.S. has said it cannot negotiate with a totalitarian regime that ignores its treaty obligations and develops new nuclear weapons, that has been mere posturing. The world understands that the United States, in actuality, needs to open channels of communication. Indeed, in recent days the American government has indicated its willingness to make deals, thus embarking upon what can only be called 'negotiations'.

        The administration’s botched initiative towards North Korea -- the present crisis worsened in part when the Bush team cut off petroleum supplies that had been pledged by a previous administration -- has provided the world a tragically unhappy lesson. An invasion of Iraq will not instruct the world that the U.S. will bring "credible force" to bear: it will merely show that the U.S. will invade weak countries, countries without the capacity to severely damage other nations. It will demonstrate that, sadly, weapons of mass destruction can be a country's strongest line of defense.

        The deputy director of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, Ri Pyong Gap, in an interview with the London Guardian, turned American ‘logic’ against the U.S. Last fall, in a document entitled ““The National Security Strategy for the United States”, President Bush told Congress that a new policy, allowing and embracing pre-emptive first strikes, would henceforward be in effect. The document was clear: “To counter a sufficient threat to our national security…to forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively.”

        Here is what Ri told the Guardian: “The United States says that after Iraq, we are next. But we have our own countermeasures. Pre-emptive attacks are not the exclusive right of the U.S." Hersh reports that the Pentagon estimates a major war on the Korean peninsula “would result in more than a million military and civilian causalities, including as many as a hundred thousand Americans killed.”

        The standoff in Korea is terrifying, and growing worse. The American failure to address it seriously, while Washington focuses myopically and monomaniacally on Iraq, only demonstrates to developing nations that weapons of mass destruction are effective, and are worth pursuing. Weapons of mass destruction, Washington’s decisions indicated, are useful cards to hold when nations play high stakes poker. It is no secret that North Korea’s destructive capacities, and Iraq’s military weakness, have in good measure determined America’s priorities at the present moment.

        Our present course is folly. First, we should renounce the doctrine of pre-emptive attack. Then, we should put Iraq on the back burner, to be resolved by the United Nations --quite the best route in any circumstance -- and concentrate our attention on North Korea.

        What should our government do there? Negotiate, since talk is less destructive than warfare. Use diplomacy rather than threats. Compose, even if painstakingly, an international consortium to bring economic and political power to bear on North Korea. Indicate to the world that the price of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction is international isolation, not war. Offer to develop alternative sources of energy for North Korea, so that it can shut down its breeder reactor.

        Reportedly, Kim Jong Il has a huge library of Hollywood movies. One can hope he will recognize that the painstaking overcoming of mistrust which is the subject of "As Good As It Gets” provides a better model for international relations than the combative machismo of "Rambo" or "The Godfather." One hopes President Bush will come to a similar conclusion.


Huck Gutman is a columnist for The Statesman in Kolkata, India and writes regularly for Dawn in Karachi, Pakistan. He teaches at the University of Vermont.