Preempting preemptive action

The Bush doctrine of preemptive action against the "catastrophic" danger of rogue states with weapons of mass destruction has faced its first test in North Korea, and seems to have flunked.

The doctrine was first enunciated in the president's West Point speech last June, in which he talked of confronting "the worst threats before they emerge." It was spelled out in the National Security Strategy statement in September, which spoke of acting preemptively, if necessary, to forestall a hostile act.

But faced with a North Korea which may already have a couple of nuclear weapons and is avowedly planning more, the administration is going to great lengths to assure the world that the United States is not contemplating military action.

On Sunday, while other senior officials stayed away from television cameras, Secretary of State Colin Powell was deployed on five successive network talk shows and several sidewalk interviews with the message that there is no crisis and no idea of attacking the latest applicant for the nuclear club. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may say, as he did last week, that America is capable of waging two wars simultaneously.

But that is only hypothetical. The new doctrine for North Korea is "tailored containment," diplomatic and economic pressure on the hermit regime in Pyongyang. And, while Secretary Powell says that the United States will not negotiate under threat, it will talk - through third parties if necessary. And Powell counsels patience as this drama plays out "in the weeks and months ahead."

How to account for this mild treatment of a rogue state that expels nuclear inspectors even while Saddam Hussein welcomes them? For one thing, the administration is trying to stay in step with South Korea and China. But, more compellingly, a state that has nuclear weapons has to be treated differently from a state which is trying to get them.

"Nobody's going to attack North Korea," Powell says with refreshing candor, because a strike against the Yongbyon reactor, now that it is operational, could cause radioactive fallout over a wide area.

So watch for the next edition of the administration's strategy statement - preemptive action against a rogue state, unless it is too late for preemption.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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