Monday, July 12, 2004

Bush's pre-emption policy is softened for Iran and North Korea

Bush's pre-emption policy is softened for Iran and North Korea: printer friendly version: "Bush's pre-emption policy is softened for Iran and North Korea
David E. Sanger NYT
Tuesday, July 13, 2004


Even as President George W. Bush turns his doctrine of pre-emptive action against powers threatening the United States into a campaign theme, Washington is using a far more subdued, take-it-slowly approach to the dangers of unconventional weapons in Iran and North Korea. There are many reasons for the yawning gap between Bush's campaign language and the reality. One of the most important is woven throughout the searing 511-page critique of the intelligence that led America to war last year, released Friday by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The report details, in one painful anecdote after another, misjudgments that the CIA and other intelligence agencies made as they put together what the committee called an "assumption train" about Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. That same train powered Bush's own justification for a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein, down to his now-discredited argument that the Iraqi leader was developing unmanned aerial vehicles capable of dropping biological weapons on American troops in the Middle East, or perhaps even in the United States itself.

The sweeping nature of that report is already fueling a new debate over pre-emption, on the campaign trail and among the nations the United States must convince as it builds its case against North Korea and Iran. On Sunday, Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas and the chairman of the intelligence committee, said on NBC-TV 's that the urgency of those problems meant there was not much time to fix the intelligence community.

"Let's do it very quickly," he said, "because in a dangerous world, if you're going to have a policy of pre-emption, whether it be North Korea or whether it be whatever threat we face," including a possible terror attack on the United States before the election, "we have to get it right."

Bush's aides say other countries are citing Iraq to make the argument that America can never again be sure it is getting it right and thus must back away from the pre-emption doctrine enshrined in Bush's 2002 "National Security Strategy of the United States."

China has been the most outspoken proponent of this view, suggesting publicly that the administration cannot be trusted when it asserts that North Korea has secretly started up a second nuclear weapons program - one based on enriching uranium. Administration officials say the Chinese are exploiting the Iraq findings for political convenience, because finding a solution to the North Korean problem will be far simpler if the evidence of a uranium program can be ignored.

"It hurts us, there is no question," a senior aide to Bush conceded Friday as the Senate report was published. "We already have the Chinese saying to us, 'If you missed this much in Iraq, how are we supposed to believe that the North Koreans are producing nuclear weapons?' It just increases the pressure on us to prove that we are right."

Iran is making a parallel argument. It admits - even boasts about - its efforts to enrich uranium, which it hid for 17 years from international inspectors until the evidence became overwhelming last year, forcing the country into a reluctant confession. Now the Iranians argue that the United States is riding another "assumption train," this time racing to the conclusion that Iran's real goal is making a weapon, rather than seeking an alternative way to produce electricity.

In the cases of North Korea and Iran, the basis for the U.S. charges is far stronger than it was in Iraq: Inspectors have seen and measured fissile material in both nations, and visited facilities capable of making more.

Yet so far, the International Atomic Energy Agency - which in retrospect largely got it right in Iraq - has declined to back the United States.

"We all think the American assessment is probably right because there is no other good explanation for the Iranian activities," one senior international diplomat involved in the search for evidence in Iran said. "But we still don't have the smoking gun," he said, adding that after the Iraq experience, "We need smoking guns more than ever."

In public, Bush's language about responding to threats is as black-and-white as it was before his administration's case about the threat posed by Saddam's arsenal began to crumble.

"September the 11th, 2001, taught a lesson I will never forget," Bush said recently while campaigning. He continued: "America must confront threats before they fully materialize. In Iraq, my administration looked at the intelligence and we saw a threat."

But, in noncampaign contexts, Bush says that there are many ways to disarm a country, and on Monday he went to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a center of nuclear weapons technology, to speak about his counterterrorism strategy.

Oak Ridge is the repository of the centrifuges, raw uranium and other nuclear equipment that the United States shipped out of Libya earlier this year, in the most conspicuous success story yet of how to disarm a country without attacking it.

Bush is urging Iran and North Korea to follow the same path. So far, neither has indicated it would. And so far, the president's aides say, Bush has purposefully avoided making the kinds of threats that he made to Iraq. One reason is a military reality: Iran could strike back against Israel or American forces in the region, and North Korea could inflict huge damage on Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Bush's challenger, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, has made clear that he will make a major issue of both the intelligence failures and what he termed in a recent interview the administration's "foolhardy rush" to embrace a pre-emptive attack against Iraq.

Until a clearly broken intelligence system is fixed, however, it is unclear how Bush, or any American president, would judge when the moment for pre-emption had arrived.

The New York Times"

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