March 5, 2003
By Alan W. Dowd

One of the most rhetorically effective, if intellectually disingenuous, arguments against war in Iraq goes something like this: North Korea has nuclear weapons; Iraq does not. North Korea has expelled international weapons inspectors; Iraq is crawling with them. North Korea is an immediate threat; Iraq is a distant danger. Hence, the Bush White House should be consistent and either let diplomacy run its course in Iraq or give an ultimatum to North Korea.

It's an effective argument because it points out an apparent inconsistency in the Bush administration's foreign policy. Indeed, from Tom Daschle to Time magazine—"The bigger threat?" queries a recent cover of Time emblazoned with a photo of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il—the president's critics are howling about North Korea, even as they go wobbly on Iraq. However, it's a disingenuous argument because those who make it invariably oppose the president's get-tough approach no matter where it is applied. Moreover, a one-size-fits-all foreign policy may be easy to execute, but it won't be effective.

For his part, President George W. Bush has explained that "Different threats require different strategies." Hence, Cold War tactics of deterrence and diplomacy are used against a Cold War relic in North Korea; the Iranian people are treated to words of support, their government to warnings; al Qaeda and its ilk are hunted down by pilotless planes and faceless soldiers who strike from the shadows; and a repeat-offender in Iraq is offered exile or the gallows.

After forty years of nuclear standoff and a decade of drift, this ambidextrous foreign policy may seem strange to Americans. But it's actually nothing new. In fact, in March of 1955, Winston Churchill addressed some of the very same challenges the Bush administration now faces.

"The whole world is divided intellectually and to a large extent geographically," a frail Churchill began. In his day, as in ours, the world was split along the jagged fault lines of fear and freedom—on one side, a toxic mix of mass-murderers masquerading as holy men and gangsters masquerading as gods; on the other, a loose and bloodied band of democracies.

In his day, as in ours, weapons of mass destruction were of deep concern. "Imagination stands appalled," he concluded after detailing the hydrogen bomb's power. Bracing his nation for an age of terror, he soberly explained that "The threat of hydrogen attack on these islands lies in the future." Churchill admitted that "bona fide disarmament all around" was the only sure way to protect the allies from Moscow's weapons, but he also cautioned that "sentiment must not cloud our vision." Universal disarmament was simply not possible, given Moscow's goals.

Despite this grim assessment, Churchill did not despair. Instead, he outlined a plan for the long war ahead. Since disarmament wasn't an option, the best strategy for protecting Britain and its allies would be "defense through deterrents"—a strategy that was already being put to the test in the nascent Cold War. "But for American nuclear superiority," he noted, "Europe would already have been reduced to satellite status." He called on Britain to do the hard work of deterrence by constructing a robust nuclear force, strengthening its conventional forces, contributing its share to NATO and preserving "the unity and brotherhood between the United Kingdom and the United States."

Notice he didn't place his hopes—or Britain's security—in the codicils of UN resolutions or the hands of UN weapons inspectors. He knew that Stalin's henchmen respected only one thing: strength. Once convinced of the allies' strength and determination, Moscow was eminently deterrable. Even so, the West had to prove its determination repeatedly—from Berlin in 1948 to Korea in 1950 to Berlin in 1961 to Cuba in 1962 to Vietnam in the decade that followed to Geneva and Reykjavik in the final hours of the Cold War.

The same holds for Stalin's last living heir—Kim Jong Il. A nuclear-armed North Korea is indeed a threat, one that deserves attention. Kim cannot become a full-fledged nuclear power, because if he does, so will his clients and neighbors. As CIA director George Tenet warns, "The domino theory of the 21st century may well be nuclear."

However, deterrence has kept North Korea at bay for fifty years. If Kim's father taught him anything, it is that a second Korean War will not end in stalemate—it will end North Korea. So he faces a choice: throw a tantrum and trigger a war that triggers his demise; start an arms race with the United States that he won't win; or give up the nukes and pry open his country.

Like Churchill in 1955, Bush knows that diplomacy backed by deterrence will position America for any of these possibilities.

Of course, deterrence doesn't make sense in every situation. As Churchill understood from experience, "The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics or dictators in the mood of Hitler when he found himself in his final dugout." Against them, we must employ other "methods of protecting ourselves." Hitler's Nazis, Tojo's kamikazes, Afghanistan's Taliban and bin Laden's al Qaeda have seen those methods up close. They are brutal and bloody, but they are the only answer to the kind of fanaticism that spawns Auschwitz, Nanking and September 11.

Saddam Hussein is not the 21st-century equivalent of Hitler. But like Hitler, Saddam is driven by vengeance. Like Hitler, he is trapped in a bunker. Like Hitler, he has violated an international ceasefire. And like Hitler, there is no evidence that he can be deterred through arms or dissuaded through diplomacy. From 1980-1991, he attacked four of his neighbors, waged chemical warfare at home and abroad, and annexed a sovereign country. From 1992-2003—with Iraq ringed by armies, smothered by air forces and teeming with inspectors—he plowed ahead with a nuclear-bomb program, attacked U.S. and British planes, stashed stores of chemical weapons and ordered raids into Kuwait. This is not the behavior of a deterrable regime. Indeed, it seems Saddam hasn't been deterred from much more than re-annexing Kuwait or exterminating the Kurds. Thus, Bush is following Churchill's advice.

Protecting America in this second age of terror will sometimes require deterrence, sometimes diplomacy, sometimes other methods. The great challenge for Bush and his successors is not to construct a single strategy to meet every threat, but to develop and employ a range of strategies to meet a range of threats—and like Churchill, to remind us that easy answers and lofty sentiment must never cloud our vision.