The US is starting a nuclear fight that will be hard to stop

by Simon Tisdall (Guardian, August 9, 2003)

John Bolton might be termed an old hand. The US under-secretary of state for arms control and international security, a Yale-educated lawyer, has held a string of senior posts in the state and justice departments. By any yardstick, he is an experienced if conservative-minded diplomat of some gravitas who, it must be assumed, knows what he is doing. But according to an official North Korean statement this week, Bolton is "human scum".

Even by Pyongyang's astringent rhetorical standards, this is strong stuff. It constituted a reply in kind to a stunningly splenetic tirade delivered by Bolton in Seoul three days earlier that amounted to a fierce, personal attack on Kim Jong-il.

North Korea's leader was a tyrannical despot and extortionist who "lives like royalty", Bolton said, while hundreds of thousands of his people were locked up and millions more endured a life of "hellish nightmare... scrounging the ground for food in abject poverty". For good measure, Bolton also attacked the UN for not facing up to its responsibilities - a familiar theme for students of the Iraq crisis.

The curious thing about this exchange is not so much its intensity as its timing. Bolton went nuclear, verbally speaking, only hours before North Korea finally acceded to longstanding US demands for multilateral talks on its nuclear arms ambitions. South Korean officials were relieved that the North had not used Bolton's broadside as an excuse for further prevarication. But like the rest of us, they were left wondering whether Bolton had launched a deliberate pre-emptive strike against the nascent diplomatic process.

This raises a key question, as America's twin confrontations with North Korea and Iran over nuclear arms accelerate towards a crunch in the next few weeks. In a nutshell, peaceful, internationally supportable, diplomatic solutions to both disputes are available. Their outlines may be clearly discerned; the mechanisms by which they can be achieved are more or less in place. But does the US actually want to cut a deal?

The ambiguities clouding US policy towards North Korea date back to the early days of the administration, when George Bush put a damper on former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of detente with the North. Since 9/11 and Bush's "axis of evil" speech, matters have just gone from bad to worse.

The planned talks in China, also involving South Korea, Japan and Russia, are viewed in the region and beyond as a crucial opportunity to arrest this apparently inexorable downward spiral. The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, and others have suggested that North Korea might initially freeze its nuclear arms programmes in return for a sort of US non-aggression pact.

But such compromises may not suit the likes of Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith at the Pentagon, and other hardliners, including perhaps Bush himself - who has professed personal loathing for Pyongyang's communist leader. For them, it seems, nothing less than Kim's overthrow will ultimately suffice, although it may have to wait until a second Bush term.

A former US envoy, James Goodby, warns that Washington must beware of over-reaching itself. "Many in the Bush administration want regime change in North Korea and think that slow strangulation might do it," Goodby wrote in the New York Times. But security assurances and economic incentives were what was really needed. "Improving the lot of the North Korean people should be a fundamental aim."

Such common-sense advice risks being drowned out by the beat of Washington's ideological war drums. That discord will strain ties with US regional allies, encourage North Korean paranoia and miscalculation, and could yet shipwreck any talks on a reef of mutual distrust, bad faith and hidden agendas.

As usual, secretary of state Colin Powell takes a softer line, insisting for now at least that the US is not intent on regime change and rejecting Wolfowitz's claim that the North is teetering on the edge of economic collapse.

Such assurances may again strike students of the Iraq crisis as unhappily familiar. Powell is not yet a lame duck but he is definitely limping after the latest spate of speculation that he will quit at the 2004 election. Powell may be getting tired of trying to restrain neo-con knee-jerkers. He surely does not relish four more years of being stabbed in the back.

The strange, treacherous ways of American diplomacy are also complicating that other nuclear stand-off, with Iran. A September deadline now looms, by which time Tehran is told it must accept "challenge" inspections of its nuclear facilities. If not, the US may seek UN sanctions and step up unilateral pressure; military options are not entirely ruled out. Following Washington's line, and egged on by Israel, Tony Blair is turning the screw, too, threatening to block an EU trade deal and highlighting human rights issues.

Like North Korea, the Iranian government is fully aware that US tactics do not stem from worries about WMD proliferation alone. But nor does it totally dismiss western concerns. In fact, Tehran has developed a series of not inflexible negotiating positions. The question, once again, is whether the US is really interested in finding solutions.

On the nuclear issue, Iran might swallow the International Atomic Energy Agency's "additional protocol" if article four of the non-proliferation treaty, entitling it to acquire "equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy", were honoured. On the issue of al-Qaida, Iran is ready to surrender suspected members if the US will exchange the Mujahedeen terrorists it is harbouring in Iraq. Even on Palestine, there is just a hint of a future accommodation. Iran says it supports Iraq's new governing council and is not involved in attacks on US troops there (for which the US has indeed produced no evidence). As an earnest of its intentions, it has offered to supply much-needed electricity to Iraq - an offer made three weeks ago and to which it has had no response.

Although, like the Bush administration, Iran speaks with many voices, it knows it must improve relations with the west if it is to succeed in building its economy and if the aspirations of its younger generations are to be met without more trouble on the streets.

But this, of course, is exactly why some in Washington think that by hanging tough and raising the stakes, they can eventually have it all. By continuing and possibly escalating disputes, US hawks hope not merely to tame the mullahs but to topple them.

This is a potentially disastrous miscalculation, a recipe for intensifying internal and external strife. It has little to do with arms control or encouraging civil reform from within, and a lot to do with imposing the US world view from without. This is why Iran's heated debate over UN inspections has acquired a symbolic quality. This is why, as in North Korea, some in Iran oppose anything that smacks of concessions.

They call it a trap. But we should call it Bolton's first law of international power politics: keep the other guy guessing; wear him down. When he gives a little, demand a whole lot more. Then zap him anyway.

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