We started a fascinating discussion today at freenorthkorea.net, in which I responded to arguments against firm action in North Korea because of Iraq. Just as North Korea had once been an excuse for inaction in Iraq, Iraq is now an excuse for inaction in North Korea. The true agenda is thus revealed as inaction in both. I edited my comments for coherence and organization and post them here, in the hope that they will provoke more thought.
How Should We Assess the Threat of WMDs After 9/11?
After 9/11, we can’t afford to demand proof beyond a reasonable doubt before we act, nor can we expect anyone but Kim Jong-Il to be dumb enough to admit having WMDs. Even at its best, intelligence gathering on secretive regimes is not an exact science. Should Bush have ignored what his CIA was telling him, along with every other intelligence agency in NATO, or should he have simply hoped for the best? We simply cannot tolerate the same degree of risk now. That’s particularly true when our intelligence is apparently so inept at telling us the true extent and imminence of a threat. The last time the CIA was wrong about Iraq, Saddam was actually much closer to having nukes than anyone thought . . . ergo the entire UN inspection program. As we debate whether Bush was too protective of our safety in Iraq, we have a commission studying whether Bush and Clinton should have been more protective of our safety before 9/11. Although the latter question is a much better one, it seems impossible for any president to make the “right” decision when either way, there will be a commission dissecting his action or inaction during the next election year. The real questions on Iraq are (1) could the CIA have been that wrong; and (2) if not, then who has those weapons now? On 9/11, the real question is why we let bin Laden kill Americans with impunity for so many years in spite of multiple opportunities to kill or capture him before he did it again. Someone should answer to the victims’ families for each missed opportunity.
What business does the United States have overthrowing a sovereign government?
First, let’s ask what ï¿½sovereignï¿½ means. Is sovereignty a function of who shoots his way into the palace garden, who controls the secret police, or who has control of the broadcast towers? Or does sovereignty have a meaning that is more distanced from megalomania and violence, and more principled, based in what Jefferson called “the consent of the governed?” By this latter standard, no one could assert that Saddam or Kim Jong-Il had terrorized their way to the head of truly sovereign governments. I see the legitimacy of a government as being directly proportional to its democratically measured support. To say otherwise is to elevate the law of the jungle to high principle.
How can you justify the ï¿½unilateralï¿½ U.S. action in Iraq?
I take issue with the use of the word “unilateral” as being relevant, either morally or factually. Hitler, for one, assembled a multilateral force of Germans, Austrians, Spaniards, Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, French, and Ukranians in his invasion of Russia and subsequent near-extermination of European Jews. The multilateral nature of a force doesn’t make its cause just. On the other hand, the United States in Iraq today has the help of ground troops from South Korea, Spain, Italy, Britain, Poland, Mongolia, El Salvador, Japan, Thailand, and perhaps a dozen others. Notably absent are Russia (a former democracy), China (a dictatorship), and France, a democracy with interests highly divergent from our own. All three of these nations enjoy their special powers on the U.N. Security Council solely because of their relative power 60 years ago, and in no small part because of their nuclear arsenals. We also know that all three had enormous financial interests in Saddam’s survival to keep his contracts and repay his debts to them, many in violation of U.N. sanctions or out of the oil-for-food program; in other words, stolen from the mouths of hungry Iraqi kids. But as Tienanmen Square and Chechnya taught us, a seat on the Security Council doesn’t qualify you as a moral arbiter, either. And it’s apparent that even the U.N. itself, specifically Benon Sevan, were on the take out of the oil-for-food kitty as well. The U.N. refuses to even consider a serious investigation of the fact that “Mr. Sevan,” administrator of the oil-for-food program, is named on Saddam’s pay-list. So if coalitions and the U.N. don’t confer moral righteousness, what does?
I would answer this question with another. Why are we reading this site? Do principles such as democracy, human rights, and the basic rights of all people to a life of dignity mean something to us? Do we indeed believe that those rights belong to all people, rather than smugly asserting that they are not fit for certain others? Which other? Why can’t every nation have the opportunity to freely accept or reject the right of self-government? Of course, the results do not always please us in America, but we should accept those results, as long as they are consistent with nations living in peace with their neighbors–as democracies almost always choose to do (Germany was not a democracy in 1939). Bluntly stated, we measure the rightness of an action by moral principles in which we believe, and which have made us all happier to live under them. Neither the assent nor the protest of autocracies, or gatherings or multilateral coalitions of them, changes those principles.
Why didnï¿½t we give the inspectors more time in Iraq?
By early 2002, sanctions and containment were failing, U.N. inspectors were long gone, and Saddam was attempting to reconstitute his banned missiles and conceal his other WMD programs for a time when it was safer to restart them. The Iraqi people were suffering under sanctions as Saddam siphoned off money intended to feed them. Ironically, the same countriesï¿½France, Russia, and Chinaï¿½that argued for sanctions, inspections, and containment were the same ones that had undermined all three. President Bush briefly revived inspections by planting half a million soldiers on Saddam’s doorstep. No one can seriously argue that inspections would have resumed without this threat, but the threat was not sustainable for more than a few months. To keep so many soldiers in a sweltering desert, far from their families, would have broken both the budget and military retention. On the other hand, it was clear that had the 82nd Airborne been sent back to Ft. Bragg, inspections would have ended and Saddam would have achieved the mother of all climbdowns. He would have felt invincible, and with much justification. Sanctions would have collapsed, and Saddam would have felt safe to restart his WMD programs. Sooner or later, he would have brought Gotterdammerung on the entire region, at a cost far higher than 500 soldiers. Incidentally, I know how precious each of those lives are, because two of them were my friends. I served in the Army at that time, and would have gladly gone if called.
Where do you draw the line on intervention?
Are we on a slippery slope of perpetual intervention? Any course of action could be similarly described, if we assume that people lack the judgment to know when to stop, or when we don’t dare stop. Of course, if our judgment is gone, handcuffing ourselves to dangerous limitations will not save us. We simply must make intelligent choices about each situation based on our best information at the time. I happen to believe that a direct military attack was the only solution in Iraq, but don’t think that it’s the right solution in North Korea, Iran, or Syria. It was obviously not necessary in the case of Libya, although the credible threat of force helped make its use unnecessary there. I believe that war should be a last resort, but I also believe that if a last resort becomes inevitable, that it should be exercised soon enough to minimize the loss of life it will eventually cause. In each case, different facts govern the course we should take. In the event of a direct attack, North Korea’s artillery arsenal poses an unacceptable risk for the civilian population of Seoul. I do not believe that a patient program of political and economic subversion of North Korea presents the same degree of risk, and carries the countervailing benefit of easing the suffering of millions–even saving their lives. We can further reduce that risk by having plenty of A-10, F-15Es, F-117s, and Tomohawks in the region. Similarly, I believe that Iran, despite its clear and direct support for al-Qaeda and hunger for nuclear weapons, is politically weak, and that we can and should help the Iranian people to overthrow their government, which the vast majority of them despise.
How can you justify preemptive war morally?
It is justifiable when it saves lives. If we accept for a moment the wildest estimates that the Iraq war killed 3,000 civiliansï¿½and ignoring the fact that the Fedayeen not only hid among the civilian population, but were often indistinguishable from them, even when lying in the morgueï¿½we should also consider that Saddam killed 300,000 of his own people in two decades, not counting the dead from his wars. It’s not hard to extend this toll into the future to see that on the whole, the war saved far more lives than it took. We should consider our policies in North Korea from the same analytical viewpoint. Every day we delay the demise of Kim Jong-Il will be another day the North Korean people suffer and die. None of this, of course, considers the potential loss of life of a terrorist setting off a suitcase nuke.
Has Iraq Undercut the Case for Preemption in North Korea?
In one important way, it has bostered it. Iraq set of a chain reaction that began with Libya’s WMD admissions, which led to A.Q. Khan in Pakistan, which led to a great deal of reliable incriminating evidence about both Iran and North Korea. On the question of Iraqi WMD as it relates to North Korea, I have yet to see evidence of any serious controversy that North Korea has WMDs. The gas chamber stories are a vivid illustration of that. Whether or not you believeï¿½as I doï¿½that Saddam did have WMDs (and disposed of them the same way he disposed of his air force in 1991, by sending them to another country for safekeeping), you can’t deny that he lied about his continued efforts to get them right up to the eve of the war. We now know that Saddam had paid both Russia and North Korea for technology to acquire banned long-range missiles.
Sooner or later, Saddam would have had and used WMD again. Given the fact that our French, German, and Russian “allies” were undermining the sanctions and trying to lift them outright–thus ending any pretense of containment–wasn’t it better to dethrone him before he had the missiles, and before he killed another 300,000 of his own people? In the case of North Korea, you’d actually have to disbelieve the North Koreans themselves to say their WMDs are an issue in any serious doubt.
Why shouldnï¿½t North Korea have WMDs when the U.S. has them, and has even used them?
When does the mere presence of WMDs create a causus belli? When those weapons are–or are in danger of falling into–the hands of those likely to use them in a first strike. Again, we must apply our judgment to each individual case. Would anyone seriously argue that the French or Israeli nuclear arsenals are as likely to be used in a first strike as a North Korean or Iranian nuclear arsenals? Here we arrive at the one central weakness in President Bush’s case for war–its focus on WMD stockpiles, rather than the clear inevitability of their eventual production and use because of the unmitigated, homicidal evil of Saddam himself. What makes regimes such as Saddam’s and Kim’s dangerous is not so much the presence of dangerous weapons as their lack of the most important restraint that is a non-negotiable pre-requisite for a nuclear power–a respect for the value of innocent life. Both Saddam and Kim have a long record of genocide against their own people, including mass killings with chemical weapons. Both countries, at various times, clearly attempted to produce nuclear weapons. Are nuclear weapons an effective means of internal control, or is their intended use focused in more ominous directions, at least from our own selfish perspective?
The history of this century alone tells us that nations with no regard for human life do not contain their cruelty within their own borders. The thugs who shot their way to power in Imperial Japan eventually used biological weapons in Chinaï¿½having already killed millions of Chinese, Korean, and Filipino civiliansï¿½and were working on their own nuclear weapons. It was our good fortune that we made them faster. The Nazis started by gassing the disabled and thus created a blueprint for the Holocaust before launching their wars of aggression. Stalin disposed of 20 million of his own people before taking control of Central Europe and building the foundations of a global empire and global warfare. Mao followed a series of bloody purges with his conquest of Tibet, resulting in one million more deaths; in all, he probably killed 30 million people. Kim Il Sung’s invasion of South Korea followed five years of bloody purges. Finally, Saddam himself invaded or attacked Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
Why is a nuclear North Korea dangerous to the United States?
North Korea has directly threatened to use nuclear weapons against Japan, South Korea, and the United States, and to sell them to terrorists. It will soon have the means to do all of these things. Furthermore, the point we have been trying to make is this: WMD or not, North Korea’s sheer brutality toward its own people makes it a dire threat. History proves decisively that every genocidal regime eventually looks beyond its own borders for more blood and pillage. I am still looking for any evidence in Kerry’s record that he grasps this basic principle. What we are looking for in this election is someone who will make the moral case for regime change, based on compassionate self-interest. Although Bush has done little of consequence, he does at least appear to see KJI as a direct threat to the United States and “loathe” Kim Jong-Il for the same reasons we do. Because Bush can’t back our North Korea diplomacy with a serious threat until Iraq and Afghanistan are more stable, I still hold hope that he’d make it a priority in his next administration.
So what can we do about North Korea?
Let’s start with the common ground on which most of us should agree: (1) the North Korean people cannot survive much more of the status quo; (2) a nuclear North Korea will eventually use its weapons or sell them to terrorists, and has directly threatened to do both; (3) a military attack is the least favored option for changing the status quo; (4) diplomacy has failed after every reasonable effort; and (5) the North Korean people have a right to replace Kim Jong-Il’s gulag state with a government of their own choosing. Then I would add several more points: the North Korean regime is economically vulnerable; it is kept in power by a privileged few; severe sanctions could deprive the regime of most of its income and the privileged class of its present standard of living; and direct aid to the “masses” would, over time, relax their all-powerful fear, ignorance, and sense of hopelessness.
I think food and radio drops are the key part of this, and that this would not create a prohibitive risk of war. I also think that it’s key to kick the legs out from under Kim Jong-Il economically. No, a complete blockade would not be possible, but it would not be necessary. The complete loss of trade with Japan, South Korea, and other nations might just be enough of a shock. China is already struggling to feed billion poor and alienated peasants. Could they really afford to make up this entire shortfall for Kim Jong-Il? Our goal would not be to decimate the North Korean people, another point on which I think we all agree. The goal would be to lessen the misery of the disfavored and rural population through direct aid and asylum, and to inject uncertainty and doubt into the lives of the elites. How stable would KJI’s power base be if his army got hungry? How much faster would it get hungry if it were forced to comb the hills, skies, and coasts for food packets, vials of medicine, and leaflets, or to block floods of refugees?
Given more time, and with enough cell phones, radios, books, and pamphlets, the North Korean people would be able to exchange subversive ideas not just among each other, but with the outside world. A next step could be coordinated acts of nonviolent resistance, such as hoarding food, cutting telephone lines, and ditching roads. Another effect might be a general increase in lawlessness in the countryside, further challenging the regimeï¿½s control. This loss of control would increasingly draw the North Korean military away from its camps near the DMZ, back to the mountains where they would be unable to launch a war against the South. It might also force them to take equipment of out of service or cancel training exercises. The weaker the posture of the North Korean military, the more provocative our support for the rural population could become. In short, if we helped to redistribute the imbalance of food, information, wealth, and power in a way disfavoring the regime, it might fall apart.