I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Invading Iraq and the North Korean threat -- a historical reminder

On many occasions in the past, I have quoted from this Howard Dean foreign policy speech delivered at Drake University in February, 2003 in order to demonstrate (a) just how prescient he was regarding Iraq (and how painfully wrong about everything his "serious" critics and demonizers were) and (b) the huge gap between Dean's depiction by the media as a far left anti-war pacifist and the actual, highly pragmatic case he was making as to why an invasion of Iraq would weaken U.S. national security and render us less able to deal with other, more important threats -- such as those from North Korea.

This morning, Mona at Inactivist has an excellent post making that very point -- contrasting Dean's urgent warnings about North Korea as one reason (of many) not to squander our attention and resources on the far less pressing Iraqi "threat," with the White House's ongoing effort to minimize the North Korean threat in order to justify their Iraqi obsession at the expense of all else. Here is just part of what Dean said, the month before our invasion:

We must remember, though, that Iraq is not the greatest danger we face today. Consider, to begin with, North Korea.

The Administration says it is wrong to draw a parallel between the situations in Iraq and North Korea, because those situations are quite different. I agree.

Iraq has let UN inspectors back in. North Korea has kicked them out.

Saddam Hussein does not have a clear path to acquiring nuclear weapons. North Korea may already have them - and is on a clear path to acquiring more.

Saddam Hussein has missiles that can go 40 miles farther than the 90-mile range allowed by the UN. North Korea has tested a three-stage intercontinental ballistic missile that might be able to reach California, Oregon, and Washington.

I marvel at the discipline of this Administration in sticking to its message - that Saddam is the greatest danger - regardless of world developments.

We have the most dangerous situation in East Asia in a decade - perhaps in five decades, and the Administration is treating it as a sideshow. The reason is that North Korea doesn't fit into any of the Administration's preconceived little boxes.

They haven't wanted to talk to North Korea because a solution requires negotiation - and sitting at the bargaining table is something Bill Clinton used to do. They do not see themselves as negotiators; they see themselves as pre-emptors. But preemption on the Korean Peninsula is a much different proposition than it is in the Persian Gulf. . . .

In recent weeks, it has become clear that the North Koreans have broken the agreement. They have begun moving the fuel rods to a new location, and threatening to unseal them. They could also re-start their reactor and produce more and more plutonium.

Within months, North Korea could become a confirmed nuclear power. Unlike Iraq, it has an advanced missile program, which would make its possession of nuclear arms even more dangerous.

The Administration's response to all this has been to say that "every option is on the table." Now, I have been in public service for quite awhile, and I'll let you in on a little secret. When government officials say, "every option is on the table," it's because they haven't got a clue what they intend to do.

It would be unfair for me to suggest that negotiating with North Korea is a simple matter. By all accounts, it is extremely difficult. No one can guarantee a successful outcome. But you can guarantee failure if you do not even try. And this administration has not tried.

Instead of a serious policy, they have wasted time, alienated our allies and engaged in a pointless war of words with Pyongyang.

Even now, the Administration seems to want to avoid anything that would shift the world spotlight from the dangers of the Persian Gulf to the even greater perils of the Korean Peninsula.

I think we can do better. . . . You would not know it from the Administration's approach, but time is not on our side. North Korea will be far easier to contend with as a threatening power than as a declared nuclear power.

Together with our allies, and others in the region, we should challenge Pyongyang to return the fuel rods to their previous location, and allow international authorities to inspect and re-seal them. North Korea must also continue its moratorium - secured by President Clinton, I might add - on tests of long-range missiles.

In return, the U.S. can pledge to take no military action against the North and agree to resume direct, high-level talks. Both sides should agree to maintain these pledges as long as talks are ongoing. The discussions should be wide-ranging and designed to give North Korea a chance to reduce its isolation and begin moving in the direction of a normal society. North Korea is a far greater danger to world peace than Iraq.

Contrary to the propaganda campaign enabled by the passive, mindless 2003 media, most anti-war advocates (such as Howard Dean) did not oppose the war in Iraq because war itself is wrong or even because preemptive war in response to a truly imminent threat is wrong. They opposed it because the evidence that Iraq posed an imminent threat was so shady and unconvincing and that the case that no other options short of war existed was so unconvincing (anyone with doubts about that should just go read Dean's speech -- "Secretary Powell's recent presentation at the UN showed the extent to which we have Iraq under an audio and visual microscope. Given that, I was impressed not by the vastness of evidence presented by the Secretary, but rather by its sketchiness").

More importantly, Dean pointed out that there were far greater threats to U.S. security than Saddam Hussein -- and he particularly emphasized the threats posed by North Korea and Al Qaeda, which would be neglected -- if not outright ignored and worsened -- by the mammoth, unpredictable and highly dangerous project of invading Iraq and attempting to re-build it into a stable democracy (see e.g. the resurgent Taliban, the uncaptured Osama bin Laden, the takeover of much of Iraq by Al Qaeda and Iran, and yesterday's North Korean nuclear test). The only way to see the Bush movement as "serious, weighty, tough" foreign policy thinkers, and the only way to see Democrats like Dean as "frivolous and weak on defense," is to completely ignore (or distort) history and to operate from the premise that being terribly wrong is a sign of seriousness and wisdom and being completely right is a sign of frivolity and weakness.

And it is worth noting -- in fact, it is critical to ingest -- that the President pronounces himself more certain than ever that he is right about his foreign policy approach. The same approach that brought us the unparalleled disaster in Iraq, North Korean nuclear tests, a neglected and therefore resurgent Taliban, and an Iran that is seemingly determined to acquire nuclear weapons is what will continue to guide our country's behavior over the next two years if the President can continue to operate with a free hand. Only in the up-is-down world of the American media political dialogue would Republicans be deemed "strong and tough" on national security and foreign policy be considered their strong suit. It is almost impossible to have been more wrong than they have been, and to weaken this country more than it's been weakened over the past five years.


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