Arms threats now on three fronts

As the US readies a reply to Iraq's weapons report, concern also shifts to growing nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea.

Every nation on President Bush's "axis of evil" list is now challenging the United States on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Thus at a time when it wishes to focus on Saddam Hussein, the administration is having to conduct something approaching a three-front diplomatic antiproliferation war.

From Iraq to North Korea to Iran, each "axis" nation presents a different kind of problem. Each will require a different prevention approach.

The White House is likely to take a hard line with Iraq, a mixed threats-and-blandishments tack with North Korea, and a softer political stance with Iran.

Whatever their success, the world may have reached a crucial point in its decades-long effort to keep the genie of WMD capped in its bottle. "Things are becoming more tense all around and we may not have a choice to concentrate on Iraq exclusively.... That really does stretch everybody but nevertheless, that is the way the world is playing it out," said Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at a recent Monitor breakfast.

Some experts worry that the unfolding of a series of slow-motion crises could cause the US to lose focus on the war against terrorism. The US military is no longer large enough to fight two regional wars at one time, they say. The time of senior officials only stretches so far.

But Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, writing in the current issue of the journal Foreign Policy, says that many successful strategies have violated the one-adversary-at-a-time rule. The US successfully fought both Germany and Japan in World War II, for instance. The cold war involved militarily deterring the Soviet Union while building up the economies and confidence of Western Europe and Japan.

In these instances the fronts were different, but the enemy was the same, writes Mr. Gaddis: authoritarianism and the conditions that produced it.

"The Bush administration sees its war against terrorism and tyrants in much the same way," according to Gaddis.

On its primary worry, Iraq, the administration this week appeared to be consolidating its evidence for a final push to convince the UN Security Council that Mr. Hussein's massive arms declaration isn't worth the paper it is printed on.

There are reports that the US will send the UN a detailed report, complete with rebutting intelligence, as early as tomorrow. While officials won't confirm this publicly, they have begun speaking out about the declaration in more forceful terms.

On Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell slammed Hussein's submission, saying US doubts about his trustworthiness had been "well founded."

Perhaps more important, Mr. Powell also said that the US would give Iraq "no second chance" to amend the document in an attempt to head off an invasion. Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has hinted he might be inclined to ask Iraq about gaps in the documents - an approach the White House worries would launch a round of negotiations with Iraq.

On North Korea, US rhetoric has been more circumspect. While he denounced Iraq Tuesday, Powell also said that the US had "no plans" to attack North Korea, and saw no indication that Pyongyang was ready to attack South Korea.

But while the US may not be threatening military action on the Korean peninsula, it is still taking something of a tough line with the unpredictable North Korean regime. The White House is refusing North Korea's demand that it directly negotiate a non-aggression pact - saying that Pyongyang must live up to the treaties it has already signed and first dismantle its newly admitted nuclear weapons programs.

Thus the administration seems to be walking a fine line in its attempts to both prod and soothe the North Koreans. "The point of US policy [in North Korea] should be to avoid that moment in time when you have to choose between them building a nuclear stockpile or you launching a military attack," says Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Iran, meanwhile, presents a difficult antiproliferation case. This week the US publicly identified two facilities in central Iran as possible parts of a nuclear production infrastructure, and accused Russian sources of helping Iran's effort to acquire a nuclear weapon. The problem for the US is that the Iranians say they will welcome international inspections of the facilities, and that all their nuclear activities are peaceful.

Meanwhile, the domestic politics of Iran are in turmoil, with a nascent reform movement and student protesters trying to wrest power from the ruling theocracy. It's this situation - not the prospective development of WMD - that should be the immediate focus of US policy in Iran, say some. "Something rather dramatic is going on in Iran. It may be the beginning of a second revolution," said former Clinton administration national security adviser Samuel Berger at a recent Monitor breakfast.

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