Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Iraq, North Korea and Libya 

Conservatives and hawks like to brag that the invasion of Iraq cowed Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi into renouncing his WMD programs. But let's think about this carefully. Think back to March, 2003. North Korea had just withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarted its Yongbyon reactor. The International Atomic Energy Agency declared North Korea in material breach of nuclear safeguards. North Korea test-fired two missiles into the Sea of Japan. And what did the administration do? It warned about weapons of mass destruction and invaded... Iraq.

By any measure, North Korea is far more dangerous than Iraq was. It has a proven arsenal of WMD's, including both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to South Korea and Japan. Moreover, North Korea is desperately short of cash, and because of sanctions its means of obtaining foreign currency are extremely limited. One of those means is selling WMD's on the black market. Both in terms of the strength of its arsenal and its potential role as a proliferator of WMD's, the threat posed by North Korea far outweighs that once posed by Iraq.

Yet there's a reason we invaded Iraq and not North Korea. The fact is that a preemptive attack on North is out of the question. Kim Jong Il would respond by launching missiles at Seoul and perhaps Tokyo. He could also launch a ground attack across the DMZ, where North Korean troops outnumber South Korean and American troops by a factor of 2-1. North Korea has what Iraq did not: a credible deterrent.

Now think ahead to December, 2003, when Qaddafi announced he was giving up his WMD programs. Eight months into the occupation of Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction have been found. Apparently, Iraq never had them in the first place. Meanwhile, North Korea now has at least two nuclear weapons and has announced its intention to "physically display" its nuclear deterrent.

Suppose you're the leader of a rogue state. What conclusion would you draw from the above facts? Which is more likely to deter a US invasion, acquiring weapons of mass destruction or getting rid of them? That's what I thought.

So why did Qaddafi renounce his WMD programs? Martin Indyk has a column arguing that Libya offered to halt these programs five years ago, but only recently was the US willing to strike a deal.

UPDATE: Flynt Leverett argues the case more convincingly than Indyk. He also makes the point that the sort of quid pro quo offer that convinced Qaddafi to give up his WMD's in return for an end to sanctions might also convince Syria and Iran to renounce weapons programs and cut ties to terrorist groups. But that won't happen unless the administration drops its illusions about why Libya caved.
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