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Deeper Into the Big Muddy

By Robert Parry
October 27, 2002

On the campaign trail this fall, George W. Bush has been selling his hard-line foreign policy as a strategy for protecting Americans. But the opposite now appears to be true: Bush’s tough-guy rhetoric in the face of complex world problems is adding to the dangers confronting Americans.

The latest episode of Bush’s unintended consequences is North Korea’s admission that it is pressing ahead to build nuclear weapons.

Bush's supporters have tried to shift the blame for this unsettling development to President Clinton, by claiming that a 1994 agreement to stop North Korea’s nuclear program was too weak. But the evidence now is that North Korea cast aside that agreement this year and sped up its quest for nuclear weapons in direct reaction to Bush’s threats and rhetoric.

The collision course with North Korea was set early in the Bush administration. In 2001, shortly after taking office, Bush cut off talks with North Korea and snubbed South Korea’s President Kim Dae-Jung over his détente strategy. Kim Dae-Jung, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, found himself humiliated during a state visit to Washington.

After the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, Bush began counting North Korea as part of his “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and Iran. Apparently, Bush's reasoning for putting North Korea into the "axis" was to avoid fingering only Islamic countries. So his speechwriters added North Korea as a kind of politically-correct multiculturalism in reverse.

More substantively, in late 2001, Bush sent to Congress a “nuclear posture review,” which laid out future U.S. strategy for deploying nuclear weapons. Leaked early this year, the so-called NPR put North Korea on a list of potential targets for U.S. nuclear weapons. In doing that, Bush reversed President Clinton's commitment against targeting non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons. Clinton's idea was that a U.S. promise not to fire nuclear weapons at non-nuclear states would reduce their incentives for joining the nuclear club.

But to Bush's advisers, Clinton's strategy was simply more "appeasement." So Bush showed his toughness by aiming nuclear missiles at North Korea and other enemy states. As part of the nuclear review, the Bush administration also discussed lowering the threshold for the use of U.S. nuclear weapons by making low-yield tactical nukes available for some battlefield situations.

All of this may have played well with Bush’s conservative base and many of his neo-conservative geo-political enthusiasts. But North Korea’s famously paranoid communist government went, as they say, ballistic.

'Strong Countermeasures'

Last March, Pyongyang signaled what would come next. The North Korean government warned of “strong countermeasures” against Bush’s nuclear policy shifts. North Korea accused the Bush administration of “an inhuman plan to spark a global nuclear arms race” and vowed that it would “not remain a passive onlooker” after being included in the Pentagon’s list of prospective nuclear targets.

A commentary, issued by the official Korean Central News Agency, cited the threat from the Bush administration in the context of the U.S. nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. “If the U.S. intends to mount a nuclear attack on any part of the D.P.R.K. (North Korea) just as it did on Hiroshima, it is grossly mistaken,” the communiqué read.

This rhetoric about nuclear weapons, though rarely mentioned during the current crisis, was not a secret last March. It was covered in the New York Times and other newspapers.

The Times, for instance, reported that “North Korea threatened earlier this month to withdraw from the (1994 nuclear suspension) agreement if the Bush administration persisted with what North Korea called a ‘hard-line’ policy that differed from the Clinton administration’s approach. North Korea also renewed its complaints against delays in construction of two nuclear reactors promised in the 1994 agreement to fulfill its energy needs.” [NYT, March 14, 2002]

In retrospect, it appears obvious that the North Koreans were telegraphing how they planned to respond to Bush’s nuclear saber-rattling. They would create a nuclear threat of their own.


Raising the tensions even more, Bush personally lashed out at North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il during a closed-door meeting of Republican lawmakers in May. In a lectern-thumping, disjointed tirade that unnerved some Republicans present, Bush denounced Kim Jong Il as a "pygmy" and compared him to "a spoiled child at a dinner table," Newsweek magazine reported.

By last summer, U.S. intelligence was seeing evidence of a resurgent nuclear program in North Korea.

"U.S. officials have known since early July that North Korea had acquired key equipment for enriching uranium," the Wall Street Journal reported. "On Sept. 12, the same day Mr. Bush addressed the U.N. about the dangers posed by Iraq, the president met quietly in New York with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to brief him on the U.S. intelligence findings about North Korea." [WSJ, Oct. 18, 2002]

In early October, U.S. diplomats confronted Pyongyang with the evidence and were surprised when North Korean leaders admitted that they were working on building nuclear weapons. Bush canceled the 1994 agreement.

Despite the warnings given seven months earlier, official Washington was stunned. Many analysts puzzled over what might have caused Pyongyang to violate its earlier promises about suspending its nuclear program and then admit to it. In briefing U.S. journalists, Bush administration officials claimed that signs of North Korean violations dated back several years, to the Clinton administration.

According to aides, Bush said he would never go down the same path of compromise that Clinton followed in 1994. North Korea "would not be rewarded for bad behavior," Bush aides told reporters. [NYT, Oct. 26, 2002] Still, while talking tough, the Bush administration said it would seek a resolution of the crisis through a multilateral strategy involving China and Japan, not through military force.

`Declaration of War'

For its part, North Korea issued a press release at the United Nations on Oct. 25, explaining its reasoning. The statement cited both Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric and the administration's decision to target North Korea for a possible preemptive nuclear strike.

"This was a clear declaration of war against the D.P.R.K. as it totally nullified" the 1994 agreement, the North Korean statement read. "Nobody would be so naïve as to think that the D.P.R.K. would sit idle under such a situation. … The D.P.R.K., which values sovereignty more than life, was left with no other proper answer to the U.S. behaving so arrogantly and impertinently."

While the "mystery" behind North Korea's motives may no longer seem so mysterious – having been explained both before and after the evidence of a revived nuclear program – it is less clear that Bush has learned any lessons about the risks of using threatening rhetoric in a careless or imprecise way.

Having already squandered the world’s sympathy after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush appears unable to shape his public rhetoric in a way that does not offend hundreds of millions of people around the world. In recent weeks in Germany and Pakistan, voters rewarded political parties that had highlighted their objections to Bush’s imperial style. In nuclear-armed Pakistan, voters even gave control of two strategic provinces along the Afghan border to Islamic fundamentalist parties. Arab leaders also are warning of a popular backlash if Bush presses ahead with an invasion of Iraq.

Dangerous Lessons

As world leaders have known for centuries, belligerent words and bellicose actions can have real consequences. Sometimes, potential enemies take hostile gestures more seriously than they are meant and events spiral out of control. That's what appears to have happened with North Korea's nuclear-bomb program, though Bush and his advisers seem to believe this is just one more problem they can blame on Bill Clinton.

There's another dangerous feature in Bush's differing reactions to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and North Korea. By swaggering toward an invasion of Iraq, which is likely years away from a nuclear capability, while supporting a non-military response to North Korea, which either has or is close to possessing nuclear weapons, Bush may be sending an unintended message to other countries: "Hurry up and get the Bomb!"

Potential enemies may come to think that the best way to protect their nations against Bush’s unilateralist policies and threats of invasions is to quickly add a nuclear bomb or two to the arsenal.

Nearing the end of his second year as president of the most powerful nation on earth, Bush still does not seem to have learned some basic rules of the job. One is that reckless language can create unnecessary trouble. Another is that to defend the U.S. against threats such as terrorism one must remember a basic tenet of counterinsurgency – that a wise application of military force must be coupled with careful strategies for winning hearts and minds, in this case the hearts and minds of people around the world.

Yet, with his undisciplined rhetoric and lack of world knowledge, Bush has needlessly alienated U.S. allies and dangerously alarmed enemies. The end result has been a rising flood tide of threats facing the American people, as Bush leads the nation deeper into the "big muddy" of international crises.

In the 1980s, as a correspondent for the Associated Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry broke many of the investigative stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. 

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