Why Not Iran or North Korea?

In his State of the Union Address on January 29, 2002, fourteen months before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, President Bush posited an “Axis of Evil” between Iraq, Iran and North Korea.  While infiltration of Iranian Hezbollah fighters and arms shipments to support Iraqi Shi’ite militias, coupled with Iran and North Korea’s continuing nuclear weapons development programs, confirm Bush’s prescience, they also prompt administration critics  to ask, “Why Iraq and not Iran or North Korea?”  It is a legitimate question.

First, after Coalition forces liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban, Iraq presented the next most immediate threat due to widely-held perceptions that Saddam was building an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and working toward a nuclear capability.  Indeed, the “9/11 Report” confirms every major intelligence service in the world thought this to be true. Iraq also had a demonstrable history of enmity toward its neighbors and hostility to US Middle East interests.

Second, located at the head of the Persian Gulf, Iraq posed a more acute threat to the Gulf States and Israel than Iran. A major US strategic problem in the Persian Gulf involves the ability to project military forces effectively. In time of crisis, Iraq could have used weapons of mass destruction to threaten countries like Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates into denying use of their bases. If threats failed, Iraq might have hit their ports and airfields making them unusable.  It is one thing to undertake military operations from bases close to an enemy country and quite another to stage from several hundreds of miles away. Furthermore, if Iraq had ever developed nuclear weapons, Saddam might have threatened Western Europe to deter US intervention. Is US support for Israel or access to petroleum worth Paris, Berlin or Warsaw? Iran cannot yet pose that kind of threat. Hell’s the paymaster if it ever can.

Third, Saddam depended on his security forces, especially the Saddam Fedayeen and Republican Guards, to retain power. Most Iraqis welcomed the end to a murderous and genocidal regime. By contrast, in Iran an ongoing political struggle between potentially democratic elements and Islamic fundamentalists provides some hope for reform. Any outside attack, especially one led by the US (or Israel) is apt to inspire a patriotic response inimical to democratic reform.

Fourth, President Bush established a favorable strategic paradigm with Operation Iraqi Freedom by geopolitically isolating Iran between evolving, if struggling, democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The region will be vastly different if Iraq and Afghanistan join Turkey as viable, Islamic democracies where respect for human rights and economic freedom foster socio-economic progress. Muslim regimes throughout the region will be challenged by progressive internal forces demanding similar reforms.  Indeed, Bush’s strategic vision might rival that of President Harry Truman whose comprehensive containment strategy bounded Soviet expansion. A clearly defined national strategy will allow for a more coherent military strategy for victory in World War IV.

Well, why not North Korea?  It’s a vastly different challenge to take on a state intent on developing nuclear weapons than it is to confront a regime that already has them. I offer a hostage analogy. While a single sharpshooter can effectively end the threat posed by a thug holding a knife to a hostage’s throat, a hostage taker with a roomful of bound victims wired with explosives will bring out skilled negotiators simply because of greater potential for death and destruction.

North Korea can obliterate Seoul using long range artillery. Such an attack would prompt the US to send forces to support South Korean troops and American units currently in place. A nuclear detonation in Punsan harbor would make it impossible to deploy forces sufficient to repel invading North Korean armies. Beyond that, a nuclear attack on Tokyo or Singapore would plunge Asia, and perhaps the world, into economic chaos.

It is likely the United States would retaliate if Pyongyang used nuclear weapons. Such a response, while necessary to maintaining deterrent credibility, also will result in unfathomable human, economic and ecological consequences.

Operationally, taking out North Korean nuclear production capabilities and destroying whatever weapons it already possess, would be more difficult than invading Iraq or attacking Iranian nuclear production facilities. Weapons storage facilities, located deep inside North Korea’s mountains, are impervious to bunker buster bombs. Cruise missiles, while extremely accurate, cannot accomplish 90-degree turns in narrow mountain valleys needed to hit the entrances to these facilities. Additionally, any pre-emptive attack could trigger general war on the Peninsula.  Given how American forces are stretched thin in Iraq, an effective response is doubtful.

World War IV involves many elements.  The challenge for President Bush is to articulate clearly a strategic vision against which a viable military strategy can be devised.  Meanwhile, victory or defeat hangs in the balance.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. Email: [email protected]

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