Nuclear deterrence may be only option

Steve Chapman

It’s only the third quarter, but right now the scoreboard reads:

Axis of Evil 2, Bush 1.

While Saddam Hussein may be in jail, North Korea has announced it has nuclear weapons and Iran is moving briskly in that direction.

The administration, which has all the trouble it can handle coping with its “catastrophic success” in Iraq, doesn’t know what to do about either Kim Jong Il or the ayatollahs in Tehran.

In all fairness, there may not be much anyone can do to stop or undo these nuclear programs. Doomsday weapons can be an invaluable asset in a dangerous world — which is why we hang on to ours despite having the most powerful conventional military force in history.

North Korea and Iran may want nuclear weapons to terrorize their neighbors or us, but they doubtless also want them for self-protection.

And what’s the downside of becoming a nuclear power? Well, you may suffer isolation and criticism from the international community. But ostracizing North Korea is like lynching a corpse. You can hardly shame a government that is already the chief pariah on the planet.

Kim Jong Il is prepared to make his people feed on grass for as long as necessary to advance his ambitions.

The government in Tehran may be slightly more interested in gaining acceptance, but the nature of international relations is that survival trumps all other concerns. If Iran thinks it needs the bomb to ward off attack — of the sort that brought down the government next door — it’s not likely to be seduced by promises of passionate economic intercourse.

These displays of stubbornness are an embarrassment for a president who thought he could intimidate our enemies with threats and demands. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush declared, “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”

That was the rationale for the Iraq war, which only adds to the mortification: We invaded a country that didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, while putting up with one that claims it does and another that is far closer to getting nukes than Iraq ever was.

Our demolition of Saddam Hussein was supposed to cow the others into submission. As it happens, the invasion apparently had the opposite effect. In the first place, North Korea and Iran may have deduced that the greatest danger is not building nuclear weapons.

Hussein’s strategic blunder was to do just enough on weapons of mass destruction to attract attention but not enough to defend himself.

Equally important, the attack on Iraq didn’t leave us much wherewithal to whack anyone else. From the vantage point of Pyongyang and Tehran, it served the welcome purpose of pinning down almost all our combat troops in a war that could go on for years.

So what can we do about these new nuclear threats?
Invasion is not an option, even if we had lots of troops twiddling their thumbs at Fort Hood. Air raids might not eliminate all the nuclear assets in either country, and they would invite awful retaliation. Iran could launch missile attacks on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. North Korea could rain destruction on Seoul or Tokyo.

The only real choices we have are unpleasant. One is to dangle incentives such as aid and trade to North Korea, in the hope of buying them off or at least reducing their economic need to sell their nukes on the sly.

Another is to offer security guarantees backed by the United Nations: You agree to give up nuclear weapons, and we agree not to attack you.

But ultimately, there may be no way to divert them from the nuclear path. In that case, we need to focus on what is truly vital. After all, we can live with hostile nuclear states — as we’ve done in the past with the Soviet Union and China. What makes North Korea scary is that it might sell nukes to any willing buyer; what makes Iran scary is that it might smuggle them to terrorist groups.

So both need to get a blunt message: Should a nuclear attack take place that we trace back to them —no matter who carries it out — they will face annihilation. Nuclear deterrence kept the peace during the Cold War, and we may have no choice but to make it serve the same purpose again.

That may sound like an imperfect, highly troublesome option, and it is. Unfortunately, we’re fresh out of better ones.

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. Contact him at:
schapman@tribune.com