Korea, Iraq and WMD

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(Host) Commentator Philip Baruth, like everyone else, has been disturbed by the images coming from the Abu Ghraib prison. But he is disturbed by something else as well: the lack of debate about a situation he finds even more unsettling.

(Baruth) The horrible photos from Abu Ghraib, among other images from Iraq, are now being cited by critics as evidence that the U.S. seriously misunderstood the culture of the Middle East and so is losing the battle of the image in Iraq.

And don’t get me wrong: I’m one of these critics. But this fixation on the lost PR war in Iraq ignores much more successful attempts to frame public opinion elsewhere.

Here’s what I’m thinking: The phrase “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” like “regime change,” has been in circulation for a while; but it wasn’t until just before 9/11 that WMD’s became the fixation of news outlets everywhere. And what this involves is collapsing the essential distinction between nuclear weapons, which kill hundreds of thousands immediately, and chemical or biological weapons, which are notoriously balky things and rarely kill as many as even the most common US conventional weapons.

In short, our authentic horror of the nuclear has been successfully transposed onto the comparatively mild threat of lower-order weapons. It’s all WMD now, and if troops find even one vial of smallpox tomorrow, it will be announced with the gravity normally reserved for underground nuclear tests.

And in the run-up to the declaration of war in Iraq, we heard non-stop warnings about the threat Sadaam Hussein posed to the US. With perfectly straight faces, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell reported that Sadaam had developed some sort of weird powered glider that could cross the ocean and douse American cities with biological goo. Even as stretches go, this was the stretch to end all stretches, and yet major US newspapers ran with the information, even offering blueprints of the suspected goo-spraying gliders.

Meanwhile, North Korea had announced — very publicly — that yes, they were building nuclear weapons; and no, they didn’t plan to stop building them.

The CIA then reported that North Korea probably had not one uranium-enrichment program, but several; and that instead of one nuclear device, the best guess was that Kim Jong-Il now had four, four being just enough to use, save, and sell. Today the best guess is eight.

Yet I remember coming out of Price Chopper one night last year and hearing Rumsfeld say, in all seriousness, that North Korea did not represent a crisis, while Sadaam Hussein clearly did; and this very strange reversal of Iraq and Korea has stuck. Recently, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Libya’s uranium seems to have come from North Korea, and Secretary Rumsfeld announced that he is moving between four and five thousand troops from the Korean Peninsula to Iraq.

Let me just stress that last point: in order to strengthen our forces in Iraq, we are reducing our military deterrent on the Korean Peninsula, where the North is turning out nuclear material like hotcakes and selling it on the open market.

So if there is a deliberate PR attempt to keep us focused on Iraq and distracted from looking too hard at North Korea, it seems to be brilliantly successful.

And every day that you pick up the newspaper and fail to see the word “Korea” anywhere above the fold is just one more proof of that success.

Philip Baruth is a novelist who lives in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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