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Preempting Preemption

BY RUSS WELLEN
06.24.2006 | POLITICS

While North Korea prepares to test a long-range ballistic missile, the administration deliberates. Meanwhile, unbidden, Bill Clinton's one-time secretary and assistant secretary of defense, William Perry and Ashton Carter, have sprung a plan on us. It's outlined in their June 22 Washington Post oped, "If Necessary, Strike and Destroy."

At one time, Perry recommended that Washington negotiate with Pyongyang and offer it the usual choice between sticks and carrots. But now he and Carter, while condemning the administration's use of preemption in Iraq, propose putting the doctrine into action in North Korea. The picture they paint is one of the perfect preemption -- and it does have its appeal.

"Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not."
What they envision is not an "attack on the entire country, or even its military, but only on the missile." Of course, they write, we should "warn the North Koreans," who couldn't "defend the bulky, vulnerable missile on its launch pad, but they could evacuate personnel who might otherwise be harmed."

A rebuttal to Perry and Carter's piece titled "No, Don't Blow It Up" by Jack L. Pritchard, a former special U.S. envoy for negotiations with North Korea, appeared in The Washington Post the next day. "Under the Perry plan of prior notification," he wrote, "you can imagine that... Pyongyang might instead erect bleachers and bring in schoolchildren to watch the launch."

North Korea is not Iran, where President Ahmadinejad's war-mongering is likely posturing. In "Burnt Offering" (print only), an article in the June American Prospect, Gareth Porter writes of the extensive overtures Tehran made to the US in 2003, only to be rebuffed by Bush & Co.

In other words, there's a method to Tehran's madness. But with Kim Jong-il, one can't help suspecting that madness isn't a method, it's a way of life. Of course, if we sat down with his people, we'd be in a better position to judge the state of Pyongyang's psyche.

Needless to say, Perry and Carter's option is too good to be true. For instance, there's that messy "collateral damage," which inevitably splatters all over the place, making a mockery of any claims to success. Furthermore, writing about the oped for Buzzflash, ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern asks, "What about Day 2? Perry and Carter offer simply this: 'We should sharply warn North Korea against further escalation.' Right. That should take care of it."

Pritchard is more explicit on possible blowback from North Korea. "Worse yet for U.S. security is the prospect that Pyongyang might bide its time and retaliate by transferring weapons-grade plutonium to al-Qaeda, along with a map of New York City."

Perry and Carter's plan is even too much for Vice President Cheney, who was quoted in The Financial Times: "Obviously, if you're going to launch strikes at another nation, you'd better be prepared to not just fire one shot."

The elegance of Perry and Carter's proposal -- one strike at one missile, not the nation -- went right over Cheney's head. But he's constitutionally incapable of finding merit in a suggestion from a member of the Clinton administration anyway.

Meanwhile, Bush & Co. may refuse to negotiate one-on-one with Pyongyang on principle -- "appeasing," as they call it -- but when it comes to North Korea, Cheney holds his martial impulses in check. That wretched state is incapable of either coughing up oil, like Iraq and Iran, or serving as a staging area from which to manage a region, like Iraq.

Even if the administration were to turn a missile into a commando and launch it at North Korea's Taepodong-2, all that would accomplish is to buy us a little time before another nuclear threat pops up on our radar screen. In "Nukes and double standards" on Asia Times Online, Middle-East reporter Deborah Campbell catalogs the rogue nuclear states (non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) that we enable "- India, Israel, and Pakistan -- and then points out:

"All but forgotten are the provisions of the NPT that require current nuclear states to begin dismantling and liquidating their own weapons system. Instead, the US has begun developing new-generation nukes, violating the very treaty it claims to be defending and potentially setting the stage for another nuclear arms race."
In the long run -- two years hence, when a new president takes office -- the US will have no choice but to eat some crow and come skulking back to the NPT. In fact, if we don't set an example by respecting the letter of the NPT law, we'll be stamping out nuclear fires forever.

Not only has a nation like Iran -- a member of the NPT incidentally -- simmered as states neighboring it have gone nuclear, it can scarcely help noticing that the US doesn't attack states with nuclear weapons. If one of those nuclear fires bursts into a full-blown conflagration, we'll have only ourselves to blame for our refusal to see the nuclear aspirations of other states through their own eyes.

About the Author
Russ Wellen is an editor at Freezerbox who specializes in foreign affairs and nuclear deproliferation.
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