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: Bushs tough-guy rhetoric in
the face of complex world problems is adding to the dangers
The latest episode of Bushs unintended
consequences is North Koreas 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 Koreas 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 Bushs 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
Koreas 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
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 Bushs
conservative base and many of his neo-conservative geo-political
enthusiasts. But North Koreas famously paranoid communist
government went, as they say, ballistic.
Last March, Pyongyang signaled what would come
next. The North Korean government warned of strong
countermeasures against Bushs 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 Pentagons 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 administrations 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 Bushs
nuclear saber-rattling. They would create a nuclear threat of their
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
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
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
`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.
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
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
Having already squandered the worlds 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
Bushs 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.
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 Bushs unilateralist policies
and threats of invasions is to quickly add a nuclear bomb or two to
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.