Will North Korea Cloud U.S. Iraq Preparations?

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Fueled and Ready: On standby in the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Constellation

President Bush set out to wrestle the headlines back from North Korea's nuclear brinkmanship, Friday, warning that Saddam Hussein's "day of reckoning" is approaching and telling U.S. troops that they may soon be asked to "liberate" Iraq. He added the by-now traditional war-is-not-inevitable rider, but made clear that avoiding one was up to Saddam — and that he doubted the Iraqi leader would do so. On North Korea, however, he was more optimistic, insisting that unified diplomacy could force Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear ambitions, even if the same approach had failed to shift Saddam. Whether the reasons for making that distinction is North Korea's infinitely more formidable ability to defend itself by inflicting pain on its neighbors or simply the fact that South Korea and Washington's other key allies in the region are insisting on U.S. restraint, that distinction could prove to be a tough sell to an American electorate resigned, but less-than gung-ho about invading Iraq.

Iraqi officials, for their part, have been warning that Baghdad expects an American invasion regardless of what the UN weapons inspectors turn up — or don't turn up, as the case may be. And Iraq certainly has good reason to share President Bush's doubts that war will be avoided. The U.S. this week initiated deployments that will almost double its troop strength in the region over the next month, even dispatching the hospital ship Comfort to the Gulf. President Bush is unlikely to countenance bringing home those troops as long as Saddam remains in power in Baghdad, swearing that he has no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam shows no sign of changing his tune, nor have the UN inspectors thus far turned up any evidence to contradict him despite Washington's undertaking to provide them with intelligence to help them do just that. The best hope of the Arab and European governments hoping to avoid a war may soon rest on their ability to coax Saddam into the somewhat unlikely scenario of a cozy retirement somewhere in the Gulf, penning more of his florid political romance novels.

But just as difficult as it is to imagine the U.S. and Iraq avoiding a war, it remains far from clear right now how the Bush administration might start one. Opinion polls indicate a strong preference in the American electorate for any preemptive attack on Iraq to be authorized by the UN, and the administration remains committed to the UN process even as it assembles an invasion armada that carries no UN mandate. Although the arms inspectors have cited problems with Iraq's December declaration that it harbors no prohibited weapons, not even Britain endorsed the U.S. view that the declaration itself put Iraq in "material breach" of Security Council Resolution 1441 — language that could trigger a war. And that's unlikely to change as long as Iraq maintains its current pattern of cooperation with the inspectors. Indeed, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will have irritated Washington hawks by his New Year's Eve statement that there was "no basis" for attacking Iraq right now.

That could change, of course, when the UN inspectors make their formal report on Iraqi disarmament to the Security Council on January 27. President Bush is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address the following day, which would provide a natural platform to respond and declare Washington's intentions. But based on current indications, the inspectors' report is unlikely to make an unambiguous case that Iraq has either complied or failed to comply with the demands of the international community. And an ambiguous report would likely see Security Council members pushing for further investigation. In the interests of securing international support for an invasion, the Bush administration may stop short of insisting on declaring war the following day, but once its invasion armada is assembled and ready for action, it will no longer be in a position to tolerate months of delay. At that point, President Bush will have to work hard to convince reluctant allies that Iraq is indeed in "material breach" of UN requirements, and that imposing a "regime-change" on Baghdad is the only remedy.

The president will also have to restate his case to the American people once — or if, as the White House spinners would have it — he decides that war is, indeed, inevitable. And his aides will not likely have reckoned with the emergence of the North Korea problem when planning the national conversation on launching a war to "liberate" Iraq. After all, the reason Americans have been given for considering an invasion is that Iraq's alleged weapons programs represent an intolerable threat to U.S. interests. But if the inspection regime fails to deliver something approaching proof of Iraq's non-conventional weapons programs at the same time as North Korea flaunts its own nuclear capability, U.S. domestic disquiet over prioritizing an Iraq invasion may grow.

Still, North Korea's actions fit a well-established pattern of North Korea negotiating via nuclear brinkmanship, and Pyongyang itself insists that it is ready to renounce its programs in exchange for economic aid and political recognition. While the Bush administration has insisted that it won't negotiate before Pyongyang closes down its nuclear program, U.S. allies in the region — most notably South Korea — are urging that Washington adopt a more flexible approach. That may cut against the administration's political instincts, but the president has strong grounds for stressing the potential for diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff on the Korean peninsula. He tried on Friday to address the question of whether the same is true for Iraq by saying Saddam appears set on defying the will of the international community, which would leave the U.S. no choice but to invade. But it remains to be seen, later this month, whether the international community concurs with President Bush's interpretation of its will, and of Iraq's actions.