After failing to get anywhere near the mark on the presence of WMDs in Iraq, the Bush administration is back again making dire claims on the weakest possible evidence. The Defense Intelligence Agency reported to the Senate today that they believe that North Korea has the ‘capability’ to put a nuclear weapon atop a missile. In doing so he presented no new evidence, and declined to state any concrete progress- such as fabricating small enough warheads to mount on a missile, testing any such warhead, or even conducting any missile successful missile tests since 1998- that might indicate that North Korea had jumped ahead in its pursuit of long-range nuclear arms.
Make no mistake about it, North Korea is a dangerous state. Totalitarian, impoverished, and ruled by an unstable, unpredictable leader, there’s no country in the world that anyone would less like to see in possession of nuclear technology (unless you’re Pakistan, in which case you see only dollar signs).
Unfortunately, given the vague claims made by the DIA’s officials, it’s impossible to judge how real the threat is. Experts- inside and outside of the administration- are constantly remarking what a difficult intelligence target North Korea is, and how lacking the United States is in human intelligence assets north of the DMZ. Pyongyang’s unpredictable leadership and pathological secrecy means that little or nothing of reliable value can be learned by observing the government itself. The strong views on the situation on the Korean peninsula- from South Koreans, North Korean exiles, aging Cold Warriors, non-proliferation internationalists, and opportunistic neo-cons means that each and every piece of real information may have been squeezed through three or four partisan filters before reaching decision makers in Washington, who clearly have their own agendas to apply as well.
Sound familiar? The intelligence situation with North Korea shows every sign of being Iraq writ large. Vague information, few human sources, and a cryptic regime that might be just as willing as Saddam Hussein to risk war in the name of continuing to appear strong (see this piece I wrote earlier that touches on the twisted psychology of the Hussein regime, and how it played into the Bush administration’s fears and doubts).
In fact, every indication is that we have less solid intelligence about North Korea than we had about Iraq at the start of the American invasion. The case for an active Iraqi nuclear program was based almost entirely on a single piece of (ultimately spurious) evidence; what are the chances that the case for a nuclear-armed North Korea with significant missile capabilities is equally weak? Almost all mentions of North Korea in the defense intelligence report were removed and classified, and much of the correct information about Iraq was gleaned after the fact by survey teams picking through Iraqi government sites after the fall of the regime. Beyond the possibility that the evidence being used to assess North Korea is weak, it’s possible that the government doesn’t even know how weak the evidence is.
Whatever North Korea’s real nuclear capabilities, the fact remains that in addition to its intelligence failings, the Bush administration has made a colossal mess of dealing with nuclear proliferation in North Korea. After detecting supposed violations in North Korea’s uranium program (violations which at least one expert on North Korea thinks may have been exaggerated and misinterpreted– read the rebuttal, and Selig’s response here), the Bush administration immediately took a hard line with Pyongyang, arguing that it wouldn’t grant concessions until North Korea halted its alleged uranium enrichment violations. The decision reveals the administration’s short-sightedness: by scrapping the benefits framework that the Clinton administration put into place, the administration removed all incentives for North Korea to continue shuttering its much more dangerous and weaponizable plutonium program. Now, we face a situation where North Korea may be exploring two different paths to constructing a nuclear arsenal.
The failure to keep focused on the more threatening plutonium program (the same program that observers think that North Korea may even now be ramping up) has put the United States, and the rest of the world, in a significantly weaker position than they were in in 2001. What’s more, initial failures by the Bush administration to engage with North Korea during the early days of the administration (take a look at the North Korean nuclear timeline here, and notice that every step since 2000 has been downhill, including mis-steps during the final months of the Clinton administration) may have exacerbated the conflict. Certainly, W’s name calling (the tunnel visionary “Axis of Evil”) didn’t help.
Every piece of evidence seems to make it clear that the administration’s non-proliferation strategy has been a bust. Weapons programs are marching on in Iran and North Korea, raising the specter of further conflict in Asia and the Middle East (Israel has already pre-emptively destroyed an Iranian weapons program once, and openly promised to do so again if the threat re-emerges). Pakistan, clearly the biggest offender in encouraging proliferation to any state without regard for ideology or stability (honestly, if the aided North Korea, who won’t they help?) has essentially been given a free pass to continue its free-wheeling ways. Seven years after publicly declaring their nuclear capabilities, Pakistan (and India) are still not signatories to the Non-proliferation Agreement, and Pakistani bomb proliferation mastermind AQ Khan has still faced little or no scrutiny, aside from Pakistan instructing him to stick close to home. In the US, we’re considering jail time for copying movies; in Pakistan, you get house arrest for selling nuclear secrets.
In both North Korea and Pakistan, we see how the terrorism bugbear has blinded the Bush administration to more serious problems. North Korea was moved to the backburner even after openly declaring nuclear weapons so that we could poke and prod for non-existent ones in Iraq. Pakistan’s position as a terrorist harbor and source of nuclear proliferation has met only the weakest of challenges because of the perception that they are a needed ally in keeping Afghanistan under control- despite the likelihood that Pakistanis are sheltering the long-missing Osama Bin Laden and his cronies.
Finally, in further signs of a providential sense of humor, who do you think was responsible for the Bush administration’s nuclear proliferation policy for the past several years? Why, none other than John R. Bolton, the nominee for UN Ambassador who has lawmakers on both sides of the aisle scratching their heads. It’s a further sign of the Bush administration philosophy of failing up that after a tenure that has seen failure in almost every possible area of proliferation control, Bolton is now being pushed further into the limelight with an appointment to an influential position in international politics, instead of being put on the next train out of town. It was John Bolton himself who had to be recalled and replaced with another negotiator after using a public vitriolic tirade as his opening offer in delicate negotiations with North Korea. Bolton may have thought that he was keeping in the noble tradition of speaking truth to power, but the truth is that he was only digging the hole deeper, and pushing the US farther and farther from a resolution.
Too many misguided, misapplied ‘principles’. Not enough results. Constant claims of ignorance (yet again tonight, I watched Donald Rumsfeld dodge reporter’s questions about Abu Ghraib on the grounds that he hadn’t seen a report. Do they not have interoffice mail in Washington anymore? Does he have some other job that prevents him from keeping up with the most pressing issues at the Department of Defense?)
It’s the current administration in a nutshell.