Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 10, 2004
WAR/POLITICS: The Right War, The Right Place, The Right Time – PART II
This is the second part of a four-part series on why the Iraq War, contrary to the position de jour of Senator John Kerry, was the right war in the right place at the right time (see Part I here). America acted both wisely and decisively in removing Saddam Hussein from power and is doing the only right thing in helping the Iraqi people get their country back on its feet.
Why, though, of North Korea, Iran and Iraq was a military response appropriate for the latter but not for the first two?
Let’s look at them one at a time.
North Korea, a staggeringly repressive and twisted regime, is a hard-line Stalinist government which starves its own people so that it can spend its money on conventional and nuclear weapons. It throws out wild anti-American rhetoric, acts in a militarily provocative nature, tramples over agreements and has brazenly pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is, arguably, the primary threat to the United States.
Yet, North Korea is a regime which acts out of extreme weakness. Its Soviet patrons have faded into history. Its southern counterpart, just across the DMZ, has become a thriving democratic society. Its primary ideological enemy, America, maintains a huge military presence on its doorstep. It is a regime which is contained and feels threatened.
By way of analogy, North Korea is like the last survivor of gang of armed robbers who unsuccessfully tried to knock over a liquor store. Its partners are now dead, the store’s alarm is ringing and the cops have the place surrounded. If it starts a shoot-out or surrenders, it will be the end of the road. It apparently views its only rational course as negotiating with a gun (i.e. nuclear weapons) pointed at the head of the owner.
A military attack on North Korea is an eventuality no one should desire. It has the military forces and artillery to devastate key South Korean population centers and kill thousands of Americans in the opening hours of any conflict. Its nuclear weapons could be fired at American forces in Japan or even, possibly, American territory. North Korea, as we know it, would be destroyed and its regime would fall, but at what cost.
There are a whole host of bad options with North Korea and only one strikes me as particularly viable: some sort of policy of resolute engagement (well outlined here). In particular, unilaterally giving in to every North Korean demand would set an awful precedent to aspiring violators of the NPT. I wish we could quietly ignore North Korea’s weapons and threats and wait for its eventual collapse (i.e. simply give it no reason to lash out). However, actively negotiating its way back from the brink is probably necessary. Bush has chosen to do this while not buckling to North Korean demands of face-to-face talks and firmly demanding the inclusion of other relevant parties. He is choosing what looks like the worst possible course of action. Except for all the others.
In any case, focusing primarily on North Korea, to the exclusion of lingering Middle East threats, never struck me as most logical second phase of a War on Terror begun on September 11th.
What, then, about Iran?
Clearly, the U.S. has few longer-term enemies than the Islamic Republic which decries us as the “Great Satan”, famously held American Embassy personnel as hostages, supports terrorism and trumpets its desire to destroy the state of Israel. Its advancing nuclear program now appears to have been far beyond that of Iraq, a state we once supported against Iran in the 1980s. In fact, the bill of particulars against Iran is almost as long as that against Iraq.
It would be too much of an effort to explain every reason why the Iranian regime is repugnant. Perhaps Salman Rushdie can do that for you. A few stand out: its nuclear development, unbending hatred of Israel, involvement in the Khobar Towers bombing and ties to al Qaeda.
You want to get rid of the Iranian regime? Sign me up.
The problem is how.
There is significant support for engaging Iran among European states, which, even though many appeased him, were willing to stipulate to the awfulness of Saddam Hussein. Also, Iran is a huge country, with a stock of religious fanatics we don’t need to look hard to see – many are in highest positions of government. However, that government does have some sense of legitimacy; it is far from our understanding of democracy, but it was originally brought into power by popular movement, not simply military coup. Furthermore, as a legal matter, Iran has not flaunted the will of the United Nations as consistently as Iraq and the United States was not in a state of cease-fire with Iran, as was the case with Iraq. Above all, Iran is an enormously complex country, one which makes our understanding of Iraq seem profound by comparison. Any plan which calls for the occupation of Iran - at any stage - would be folly.
There are many options for Iran: massive air strikes, direct negotiation, détente, tougher economic sanctions, etc… Similar to Daniel Drezner, I personally support a policy of more carrots and sticks; giving the Iranians some of the benefits of American engagement, while showing them the tangible consequences of misbehavior (i.e. pulling back such benefits). I think the way to deal with them is to show strength while being willing to talk and simultaneously being prepared to use incremental force. The more the regime opens up, the more likely its internal collapse will be. The mutual interests we both have in an Iraq democratically controlled by a Shia majority are a good starting point and I think Bush alone, among our two candidates, has the hard-line credibility to be able to come to the table without appearing like a weakling.
It seems fair to say that military action against Iran, especially as a distinct and overriding alternative to action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, would have been misguided.
The foregoing has been an argument against taking certain military actions and in favor of engagement strategies and diplomacy. In the case of Iraq, however, such options were simply not viable.
In Iraq, in late 2002, it was time to act.
More on why in Part III.