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An Ominous Drift
The hour is late.


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The ominous feeling of drift in American foreign policy at the moment is, we hope, the product of two failed policies — inspections in Iraq and appeasement of North Korea — coming to the end of the line, in one final whimper. The time for President Bush to separate his administration from these policies is rapidly approaching, especially in the case of Iraq. If he doesn’t, the consequences for America’s standing in the world and for his own presidency will be grave.

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The case against renewed inspections in Iraq was always strong. Indeed, Bush administration officials have in the past made the case themselves. Inspections were designed to verify that cooperative states were complying with international standards — not to ferret out the truth from recalcitrant regimes. As Vice President Cheney noted last fall, we have learned more about Iraqi weapons programs from defectors than from inspections. David Kay, former nuclear inspector for the United Nations, said that the only “inspections regime” that would work in Iraq would be indistinguishable from an occupation.

If the inspections of the 1990s were dubious, the new round of them now is even more so. For one thing, the Iraqi regime has had years to arm and to hide its weapons. For another, the chief inspector today, Hans Blix, is a man who is unwilling to report bluntly about Iraq’s weapons offenses since that might prompt the West to go to war — and indeed was chosen for his job by Baghdad’s patrons in the U.N. for that very reason. Blix is now acting as though his chief imperatives were bureaucratic, and no revelation — the discovery of undeclared chemical warheads Thursday being an example — seems likely to jolt him from this mode. He wants more staff and he wants his mission to extend further into the future, perhaps indefinitely.

The administration knew that going to the U.N. and resuming inspections was a risky course, one that could build international support for its campaign to overthrow the Iraqi regime but could also bog it down. The latter possibility is now coming to pass. None of our allies is going to commit to action when we ourselves appear to hang back. Allowing Blix to continue his work beyond the Jan. 27 report to the Security Council stipulated in Resolution 1441 would be an unacceptable concession to further delay and inaction.

The situation in North Korea is still more alarming. The Bush administration says it is willing to discuss aid and a non-aggression pact and that it does not contemplate using military force. Thus is provocation rewarded, and invited.

Several points may be adduced in Bush’s defense. Foremost among them is that the troop build-up in the Gulf continues, and the time now occupied with Blix’s meanderings may simply be necessary to complete it. The administration has also cut off aid to North Korea, and is seeking to build international support for sanctions on it. For every worrying rhetorical feint, there is a tougher one — President Bush’s complaint that he is “sick and tired” of Iraqi deception being one of the latter. Finally, the administration can reasonably plead that, especially in the case of North Korea, it has no good options.

Removing our troops from the peninsula might force China and South Korea to confront the regime, and the mere possibility of it may already have improved relations between Seoul and Washington. But actually going through with it, now, would be interpreted by everyone as a huge reward for Pyongyang. Going to war with North Korea could involve massive casualties, and neither the public nor our allies may have the stomach for simultaneous engagements with two regimes. (Whether we have the military resources to fight Iraq and North Korea at the same time is a different question. Everyone in Washington seems to be worried about that except, oddly, for the Pentagon.)

It should not surprise us that a happy course of action is hard to find. One of the marks of bad policy, of the sort that Clinton bequeathed to Bush in North Korea, is that it narrows our options to the unpalatable. But that is all the more reason not to continue such policy. The goal of the U.S. on the Korean peninsula should not be cutting another deal with Pyongyang, in which support for the regime is exchanged for more empty promises, but ending the totalitarian government there.

While the build-up around Iraq continues and the administration — one hopes — formulates a new North Korea policy, the administration can obviously be forgiven for temporizing. It often has its place in international politics. It also, needless to say, has its limits. President Bush famously said that “time was not on our side,” and thus implicitly was on the side of the axis. We have reminded him often of those words, while also deferring to some extent to his judgment. The hour is getting late.



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