Henry Kissinger has a long, important op-ed, “Denuclearizing North Korea,” in today’s Washington Post (no link yet). As Kissinger himself hints, while the piece seems to be about North Korea, it is obliquely about Iran (and thus Iraq) as well. Here is what I take to be Kissinger’s distilled (and partially implicit) message. First, Kissinger notes that full-scale nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran will leave the world living “precariously at the edge of catastrophe.” That’s strong language for Kissinger, and entirely justified.
Above all, Kissinger is sending out a message to the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese: “Through my allies Baker and Gates, and through the president’s new-found willingness to listen to realist advice, I may well be able to get you a double “grand bargain” that brings relative peace and stability to Korea and the Middle East. But I cannot succeed if you aren’t willing to bite the bullet and levy serious and painful economic sanctions on both North Korea and Iran. Those sanctions may be almost as painful to you as they will be to Korea and Iran. Yet without them, nothing is going to happen. Get me those sanctions, and I just might get you a deal that domesticates the erstwhile ‘axis of evil.’ Wimp out on sanctions, and you are looking at a proliferation nightmare and potential nuclear catastrophe. This is the moment when President Bush is finally showing some willingness to go the route of negotiations, security guarantees, and ‘grand bargains.’ But if you (France, Britain, Germany, China, Russia) aren’t willing to pony up with some tough and painful (to you) sanctions, the moment will pass and the world will be headed for disaster.”
I think Kissinger has put his finger on the key question. It’s fairly obvious that the Baker commission is headed for grand bargain diplomacy. Is that a good idea? Given the difficulties of enforcing any bargains, probably not. Political realities, however, says we’re headed for bargains anyway. Yet the mere willingness of the United States to strike a deal does not guarantee success. Nor does it determine whether the “success” we’re talking about means disarming Iran and Korea for a price, or simply accommodating to two new nuclear powers, and the proliferation nightmare sure to flow from that new reality. Kissinger seems to be hoping to strike a deal to halt, or even reverse, nuclear progress in both Korea and Iran, yet he knows that mere financial incentives won’t be enough to pull that off. To denuclearize Korea and Iran, there will need to be very sharp economic sanctions from the big powers, and a credible threat of more sanctions to come if the first wave of punishment fails.
So while all eyes are now on congress and the Baker commission, the real action is elsewhere. Without serious sanctions on both Korea and Iran from the Europeans, Russia, and China, the “realist” solution will fail. At that point we’ll be left with a choice between dovish surrender and a return to a
muscular policy, in a newly destabilized nuclear environment. Of course, even a seemingly successful set of “grand bargains” could fall apart from cheating. It will be next to impossible to
institute the sort of inspections regimes that could police any
deals. Yet we won’t even reach that stage of failure if we don’t
get tough sanctions from the big powers first.