Anyone who thought that the rest of the world’s crises could be put on hold while the United States confronts Iraq must now know that it was a pipe dream. It has long been a commonplace that Washington can deal with only one crisis at a time. This isn’t, by the way, a conservative versus liberal or Republican versus Democrat phenomenon. It just works that way and always has.
Washington is, as we all know, focused on Iraq. But now comes North Korea another member of the president’s “Axis of Evil.” There is broad agreement around the world among foreign ministries and the international press that the situation in North Korea poses a far greater threat to world order and security than does Iraq. And frankly, that hard truth could hardly come at a more inconvenient moment for the Bush administration.
At first the administration talked tough. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said almost causally at a recent news conference, that the United States could indeed fight two wars at once. After that, the rhetoric softened a bit. Secretary of State Colin Powell is now the public voice of the administration. He has noted that while the U.S. will not negotiate with North Korea it is nonetheless prepared to talk to them; a fine and useful distinction.
Now, let’s back up a bit. It was a year ago in his 2002 State of the Union speech that President Bush listed North Korea as a part of his “Axis of Evil,” but the president didn’t leave it at that. Sometime later the president called the North Korean leader, Mr. Kim Jong-Il, a “pygmy” and added, “I loathe Kim Jong-Il. I’ve got a visceral reaction to this guy.” There was more, but you get the drift and tone of what the president has said.
Add to that the administration’s announced Doctrine of Preemption stating that the United States both can and will move preemptively against states that are a threat to their neighbors or pose a danger to the United States. Whether in reaction to this we don’t know, but in due course Mr. Kim announced that his country feels threatened and so it is getting back into the business of producing nuclear bombs and rocket delivery systems. The North Koreans further announced that if the U.N. Security Council should place them under further economic sanctions they, the North Koreans, will consider it an act of war.
This is serious stuff. Their artillery has the ability to reign destruction on Seoul, the South Korean capital. Their rockets can easily reach Japan and they probably already have a small number of nuclear weapons.
What to do? For starters, tone it down. While it is easy to identify with the president’s visceral reactions (I know that I do), it still isn’t wise for the president of the United States to be saying publicly such provocative things. Second, unilateralism won’t work. This has got to involve the South Koreans, the Japanese, the Chinese and the Russians. Encourage them to take the initiative. Allow Kim to save face. Talk. Talk some more. Third, the Bush administration needs to get over, once and for all, its aversion to carrying forward anything that the Clinton administration did. And this is a good place to start. Progress was being made. Reconstruct it. Push back the clock. And last but not least, buy time. As much as possible. Buy time.
This is Olin Robison.
Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.