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Three-Ring Circus By: William Safire
The New York Times | Friday, January 03, 2003


WASHINGTON

Last year, politicians opposing an attack on Saddam claimed it would somehow interfere with our global war on Al Qaeda.

This year, a new excuse for delay is being advanced: the nuclear threat from North Korean Stalinists is more immediate, and therefore we should seek an accommodation with them before taking on Saddam.

In sum, the doves' rationale for inaction everywhere is that our plate is too full: the international arena has become a three-ring circus.

This push toward paralysis is a result of the long "phony war" against Iraq. What seemed like such a winner to Colin Powell and his Senate acolytes last summer — to delay allied action until the U.N. Security Council reluctantly gave us its blessing to stop Saddam's secret buildup — now seems not such a great idea.

The unequivocal blessing for united action is unlikely to come any time soon. As a result, the nuclear blackmailers in North Korea have taken advantage of this extended period of phony war to recycle their own nuclear challenge.

If the war to disarm Iraq were already over, with the point driven home that rogue-state nuclear threats trigger dire consequences, North Korea would not have seized this moment to renew its blackmail. We find ourselves in this three-ring circus today because we have been slow-walking needed action in the Persian Gulf.

Why isn't Pyongyang's dictator directing his extortion primarily at neighbors in South Korea, China, Russia or Japan? Because he selected the U.S. as his sole target. Seeking to humble a superpower with deep pockets, he demands "engagement" with us exclusively.

The knee-jerk reaction at State is to ignore the past double cross and to engage in renewed bilateral negotiations by giving accommodation a tougher name. When "tailored containment" didn't fly, Powell's spokesman trotted out a fresh oxymoron to signal our coming renewal of blackmail payments: the administration is "prepared to pursue a bold dialogue".

Instead of merely going to the U.N. for bold finger-wagging, President Bush should order a drawdown of U.S. troops in South Korea, where they are now reviled and serve only as hostages to the North. Let Koreans pursue bold dialogues with each other.

He should then lay it on the line to China's new leader: Beijing cannot escape responsibility for tolerating North Korea's decision to build long-range missiles with nuclear warheads, to be used for blackmailing the U.S. or for sale to terrorist nations or groups. China's silence is assent.

Communist China is the only nation with diplomatic, economic and military influence over Communist North Korea. It cannot disclaim its salvation and sponsorship of that totalitarian state on its border. China cannot stand aloof from its obligation to restrain its starving ally without losing its claim to hegemony in Asia.

Perhaps Chinese generals have not thought through the shift in military power in the region if Pyongyang gained the ability to take out a hundred Chinese cities with nuclear missiles, as well as the economic motive it would have to export mass-destructive arms to turbulent regions within China.

Perhaps Russia's military, which saw how America legalistically allowed North Korea to ship Scud missiles to Yemen, will wonder if we would be so punctilious if we stopped an unflagged North Korean ship with nukes possibly destined for transshipment to Chechnya.

Certainly it will occur to the Japanese, who have already seen a North Korean missile whiz past, that theirs is the rich nation most directly exposed to nuclear blackmail. The American umbrella is a comfort, and the Japanese revulsion of nuclear weaponry is deep-seated, but that nation has the scientific know-how and the plutonium to produce its own deterrent within a year.

Do China and Russia want to see Japan, driven by fear of atomic attack, become a nuclear power? Do Beijing and Moscow want to leave it to the U.S. alone to deal diplomatically, perhaps too trustingly, with Pyongyang — especially when we have a couple of wars on our hands?

Bush should tell China's Hu, Russia's Putin and South Korea's Roh that the U.S. is not the only ringmaster in this three-ring circus. If they want to protect their own nations, it is up to them to follow our lead against terrorists, stay out of our way in Iraq and take the lead in straightening out North Korea. 


William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times.


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