When Sabers Rattle Too Loudly

Truth or Diction

The unexpected admission last Wednesday that North Korea has been operating a secret nuclear weapons program since the mid-1990s, in direct violation of agreements with the U.S. and others, has forced the Bush PR machine far from its comfort zone. Bush was still conjuring apparitions of an axis of evil as late as two weeks ago, as if all of America’s earthly enemies were merely limbs of a single monster. “Terror cells and outlaw regimes building weapons of mass destruction,” he explained in his case against Iraq, “are different faces of the same evil.”

Now that North Korea ranks among the armed and dangerous “outlaw regimes” led by a “murderous tyrant,” however, Bush cannot seem to draw distinctions fast enough. Where we were told two weeks ago that only our righteous military might could save us, the administration now calls for a “peaceful resolution” in North Korea. Before news of North Korea, Bush warned that “our security requires that we confront both [terror cells and outlaw regimes], and the United States military is capable of confronting both.” The administration does not dare mention the military in reference to North Korea today, instead calling for work through “diplomatic channels at this point, in consultation with our friends and allies, others who have a stake in what is going on.”

In all fairness, Bush probably never expected North Korea or Iran to step out of line when he first brandished his “axis of evil” rhetoric in the aftermath of Sept. 11. He probably hoped that name-dropping would heighten our alarm and rally support for his particular response.

Whatever his thinking, fate has called Bush’s bluff, and the administration’s reaction shows that its recklessness does have limits. Bush and company do not want war with North Korea. In their current struggle to escape their rhetorical straightjacket, they betray their intent to frighten the public into a war with Iraq that they realize may not be necessary. Although the North Korean threat differs from Iraq in the details, it is certainly of comparable magnitude. Bush cannot pretend that a preemptive strike is necessary in one case of while admitting the possibility of patient and deliberate diplomacy in the other.

When White House spokesperson Scott McClellan explained last Thursday what sets Iraq apart, he never bothered to actually describe the situation in North Korea. “Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a murderous tyrant who has already used chemical weapons to kill thousands of people,” he explained without making the contrast explicit, “and the same murderous tyrant has tried to dominate the Middle East and has invaded and brutally occupied a small neighbor as recently as a decade ago.” Not once in his response to the question of double standards does he so much as mention North Korea.


Had he deigned to make the other half of the argument, he would have described a nation that, although different, is hardly better. Both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the CIA suspect that North Korea already has “a small number” nuclear weapons ready and available for use, while they put Iraq at least a year away even if their most gloomy estimates. North Korea’s dastardly leader, Kim Jong Il, may have never used chemical weapons on his own, but he watched millions starve in the countryside while he diverted aid money intended for food to his military, probably in part to pay for those weapons. His country’s human rights record is among the worst in the world, and were someone to point that out from within, he or she would risk years in a labor camp full of other dissidents.

Like Iraq, North Korea has flouted inspections, diplomatic and economic pressure. It has concealed weapons production facilities and traded nuclear technology with Pakistan while remaining one of the world’s worst missile proliferators, suspected of selling to Iraq, Iran and Syria. North Korea fired a test missile over Japan in 1998 with an obvious aim to intimidate, and were it not for the 37,000 US troops stationed in South Korea, they might have even shown less restraint.

Even the Bush administration, for all its truculence, realizes that the best approach to North Korea is both patient and multilateral. Bush immediately dispatched a pair of American diplomats to South Korea, Japan and China in an attempt to contain the situation when news of North Korea’s nuclear program broke, and the State Department’s rhetoric emphasizes close cooperation with regional allies in the interest of peace. “Everyone in the region has a stake in this issue and no peaceful nation wants to see a nuclear-armed North Korea,” said State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher, “this is an opportunity for peace loving nations in the region to deal, effectively, with this challenge.”

More than anything, of course, the administration wants the whole situation in North Korea to fade quietly away. It hopes we overlook the fact that when faced with a “murderous tyrant” not totally outmatched by our conventional forces, administration insistence for preemptive action dissolves into calls for deliberation and multilateralism. Bush himself has barely uttered a word on the issue, instead speaking through others and funneling questions to the State Department.

A Gallup poll last week reported that 44 percent of Americans do not think the Bush administration has done enough to justify military action to remove Saddam—down only three percent from before Bush’s so-called case for invasion. As Bush’s rhetoric loses its power to persuade, so may it also begin to undermine the support he takes for granted. Bush’s rhetorical machine has cowed Democrats in Congress long enough. Although the decision for war seems to have been made already, administration doublespeak may provide the leverage necessary to seize control of its eventual scope and form.

Blake Jennelle ’04 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.