Thursday, March 01, 2007

Blunder over North Korea?

It seems to me that this is a very important story. As the London Telegraph reports, Bush adminstration officials are saying that it looks as if the U.S. blundered badly, back in 2002, when it believed firmly some apparently shaky intelligence about North Korea pursuing an alternate route to nuclear-weapon-capable fuel, i.e., enriched uranium as well as plutonium. Now they're saying the reports, centered around a centrifuge acquired from Pakistani personal proliferator A.Q. Khan and aluminum tubes (shades of Iraq), were only of medium reliability and may have been misinterpreted. The confrontational U.S. reaction to the information may have triggered the accelerated North Korean quest for some kind of weapons it could test and thereby display.

What's significant here is that Bush administration (haven't seen a printed identity yet) officials are feeding this kind of information to the media. Does this kind of second-guessing about past decisions come from administration dissidents, or is it now the official administration policy?

What the episode illustrates is that being eager to be confrontational with overseas regimes is an ideological position rather than a geopolitical necessity. Neocons are generally eager to detect slights and betrayals on the part of hostile regimes that demand instant, usually violent confrontation. The only way a regime maintains respect and leadership, too many Americans believe, is to kick a little foreign tail or lob a few bombs whenever the opportunity presents itself. It's like the playground bully looking around the schoolyard for a fight just to remind everybody who the boss is.

In foreign relations it may not be unwise to make sure other countries know you have a big stick. But there are usually a dozen ways besides wielding the stick to handle a crisis or potential crisis. Sometimes if you do nothing the problem goes away; the sheer incomptence of nation-states is an often underestimated factor in geopolitics. Miscalculations are common. The Soviet empire fell more of its own weight than by any shrewd strategic moves by the West, although it's possible some moves by Reagan prodded the process along a bit.

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