Commentary

Bush Doctrine Rings Hollow

By Charles V. Peña
January 26, 2003

The National Security Strategy of the United States promulgated last September provides a formal rationale for the Bush administration’s rhetoric and actions against Iraq. Indeed, the United States seems prepared “to forestall or prevent… hostile acts” and “act preemptively” to remove Saddam Hussein from power and disarm Iraq because of the “emerging threat” that country might pose to international peace and security. But within two months of announcing the new U.S. national security strategy, the North Koreans decided to put it to the test. And it looks like the Bush Doctrine has failed.

Here’s what we know:

  • According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is no evidence that Iraq “lied in its declaration on the nuclear issue.” But North Korea — another country named as part of the “axis of evil” by President Bush — has admitted to an ongoing secret nuclear weapons program and is in violation of its 1994 agreement with the United States to freeze its nuclear weapons development.
  • There is no evidence that Iraq possesses any nuclear weapons and likely does not have the capability to produce any. On the other hand, North Korea is believed to possess at least one or two weapons and is currently extracting weapons grade plutonium from a previously shut-down reactor that could be used to build several more weapons within a matter of months.
  • Iraq — per U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 — has allowed weapons inspectors back into the country, granted them unfettered access, and is largely cooperating with the inspection teams. Meanwhile, North Korea has removed U.N. monitoring equipment from a nuclear reactor in Yongbyon and has expelled U.N. weapons inspectors.

Yet while the wheels of impending war continue to churn vis-à-vis Iraq, President Bush has said that “we will have dialogue” with North Korea and has emphasized that the United States has “no aggressive intentions” toward the DPRK.

How can this seeming contradiction be explained?

First, despite Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s claim that the U.S. military could wage a war against North Korea even during a conflict against Iraq and while continuing to fight the war on terrorism, the truth is that there are limitations to even a superpower’s ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. By definition, it’s impossible to focus 100 percent attention on more than one thing at a time. And for now, the bulk of the administration’s attention is focused on Iraq.

Second, North Korea is different from Iraq, as both Secretary of State Powell and National Security Advisor Rice have asserted — but not for the reasons they’ve given. The truth is that North Korea (unlike Iraq) is a nuclear-armed country. The United States, therefore, must exercise caution and restraint to avoid touching off a war on the Korean peninsula that could have nuclear implications. Unlike threatening war against Iraq, the risks and stakes with North Korea are higher.

Thus the Bush Doctrine fails on two counts. It might work against countries such as Iraq that have no real military capability that threatens the United States, which, of course, begs the question of why they are threats to begin with. But it does not work against countries that actually acquire nuclear weapons. And that is the lesson North Korea has taken away from U.S. policy and actions against Iraq. Rather than dissuading countries from acquiring nuclear weapons, the Bush Doctrine actually creates incentives for countries to get nukes as quickly as possible.

Without nuclear weapons, small weak countries are vulnerable to overwhelming U.S. conventional force superiority and the imposed will of U.S. policy. But nuclear weapons are the great equalizer and one (perhaps the only) thing that could deter the United States from taking military action against another country. And if this is obvious to the North Koreans, it is likely not lost on Iran — the other member of the axis of evil — as well as a host of other countries around the world where the United States has interventionist aspirations.

And short of military action to prevent a country from acquiring nuclear weapons, the Bush Doctrine offers no real options for dealing with a country once it has nuclear weapons. Indeed, the United States’s current approach to North Korea is a willingness to “talk” but not “negotiate.” That is a distinction without a difference, and is an admission that there is little the United States can do to force the North Koreans to abandon their current course.

The Bush Doctrine may be a way to neatly justify eventual U.S. military action against Iraq. But, ultimately, it is shortsighted and woefully inadequate for dealing with North Korea and future proliferation.

Charles V. Peña is senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.