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

"The world's most dangerous regimes" with the "world's most destructive weapons"

News of the North Korean nuclear test is not the sort of event that lends itself to instantaneous comprehensive analysis, but there are some facts that have been quite clear with regard to North Korea for some time and, this morning, are clearer still. Independent of how well or poorly the Clinton administration dealt with North Korea -- and there is room for reasonable debate on that question -- there is no getting around several facts: (a) the North Korean threat has grown substantially during the Bush presidency; (b) the course we have followed for managing that threat has failed on every level; and (c) our ability to credibly threaten any military confrontation is virtually nonexistent.

The President, in his 2002 State of the Union address, famously identified North Korea as a charter member of the "axis of evil" and, when doing so, this is what he vowed:

Our second goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction. Some of these regimes have been pretty quiet since September the 11th. But we know their true nature. North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens. . . .

States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic. . . .

We'll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.

Whatever else might be true, the President has had six years to operate with a completely free hand -- meaning nothing but rubber-stamping support from Congress -- concerning North Korea. The President vowed that he would not permit exactly this situation to emerge -- namely, that one of the "world's most dangerous regimes" would acquire "the world's most dangerous weapons." And yet that is exactly what North Korea has blithely proceeded to do under this administration.

It is impossible to contest the fact that the administration has done nothing to improve the situation. Quite the contrary. Negotiations with North Korea have regressed, not progressed. In response to our empty and hollowed belligerence, the North Koreans have become more belligerent, not more cooperative. They have acquired greater weapons capability right in front of our faces. And now they have tested a nuclear weapon.

Our credibility to act in the world -- both diplomatically and militarily -- has to be close to, if not at, an all-time low. We are already fighting two wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) which, by all accounts, have significantly depleted our military resources. And we have been overtly threatening -- and flirting with a passing of the point of no return -- to fight a war against a third country (Iran). We plainly don't have enough troops to devote to our current wars in order to win them, let alone start new ones. And we have close to 40,000 American troops on the border between North and South Korea who are veritable hostages in any military confrontation.

Independent of all of that, we have plainly created an incentive system where every rational leader -- not crazed, Hitleresque, world-domination-seeking leaders -- but every rational leader, would assess that it is in his country's interest to acquire a nuclear capability. Of the three "axis of evil" members, the one which was, by far, the weakest militarily was the one we invaded and shattered. But with the strongest of the three, North Korea, we have proceeded very gingerly, issuing plainly empty threats and bellicose rhetoric but doing little else.

The message we have sent with our foreign policy is clear -- if you are a militarily weak nation, we may invade you or bomb you at will, but if you arm yourselves or, better still, acquire nuclear capability, we will not. That has become the incentive scheme produced by having the world's only superpower announce to the world that it has the right to preemptively invade other countries.

Time and again, the President has demonstrated that he is capable of seeing a complex world only in the simplest Manichean terms. Someone is either Good or they are Evil. And if they are Evil, it means you cannot deal with them or negotiate with them or rely upon diplomacy. By definition, Evil understands nothing but force and threats of force. The only thing that works with Evil is to crush it, not to manage or compromise and negotiate with it.

But the Evil of Pyongyang is one which -- as it well knows -- we lack the capability to crush. And since the President sees no other options -- since his worldview permits no other approach -- we have done nothing instead (other than inflame their incentives to become a nuclear-armed nation). And the nuclear test yesterday is the fruit of that approach.

Whenever anything bad happened in the first several years of the Bush administration (with North Korea or anything else), the administration and its followers instinctively blamed their predecessors in the Clinton administration. But they have now controlled the country for the last six years and when a situation worsens so preciptously as it has in North Korea, no reasonable debate is possible about who is responsible for those developments.

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