North Korea ‘s dramatic public revelation that it possesses nuclear weapons represents a stark challenge for the Bush administration.

The North Korean claim, if true, underscores the failure of President Bush’s nonproliferation policies that since the beginning of his first term had been subordinated to a grander vision of regime change. That policy was intended to transform strategically vital regions of the world into Western-style democracies supportive of the United States and the Bush administration’s vision of American global dominance.

The intermingling of nonproliferation and regime change policies was doomed to fail. One requires skillful multilateral diplomacy based on the principles of uniform application of international law, the other bold application of a unilateral doctrine of aggressive liberation rhetoric backed by the real threat of military power. When blended, as the Bush administration did, unilateralism trumps multilateralism every time. North Korea’s announced accession to the nuclear club represents the inevitable result.

The end of America’s meaningful role as a promoter of global nonproliferation can be traced to decisions made in the 1990s regarding regime change in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The United Nations had embarked on a bold effort to roll back the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction through disarmament and, despite some initial difficulties, scored a dramatic success.

It is now clear that Iraq, under pressure from U.N. weapons inspectors, was disarmed of its WMD by 1991 and had dismantled and destroyed the last vestiges of its weapons programs by 1996. But the United States had, since 1991, committed to a policy of regime change in Iraq, which required economic sanctions-based containment linked to a continued finding of Iraqi noncompliance with its disarmament obligation.

Rather than embracing weapons inspections, three successive U.S. administrations denigrated and subverted the work of the inspectors in order to keep the primary policy objective of regime change in Iraq on track. The nail in the coffin of U.S. nonproliferation efforts came when the Bush administration willfully misstated the extent of the Iraqi WMD programs in order to justify its invasion of Iraq.

North Korea and Iran concluded from events leading to the U.S. invasion of Iraq that the Bush administration did not regard nonproliferation as an endgame but a tool designed to weaken a target state to the point that it could succumb to the grander U.S. policy objective of regime change.

Mr. Bush had stated that the world would be a better place with the regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran removed. Therefore, all diplomatic efforts – whether the six-party framework with North Korea or the European Union-brokered negotiations with Iran – were regarded as disingenuous fronts intended not to facilitate nonproliferation and stability but rather instability and regime change.

With Iraq a model of the reality of America’s unilateral militaristic approach toward bringing about regime change, North Korea and Iran have embarked on the only path available to either of them – acquisition of an independent nuclear deterrent intended to forestall what they perceive as irresponsible U.S. aggression.

The Bush administration has come face to face with the reality of the failure of its policies. Rather than curtailing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the administration’s crusade against global tyranny has served as an accelerant in placing the most dangerous weapons known to man in the hands of xenophobic regimes that have been backed into a corner.

But the situation in North Korea and Iran could still be resolved in a way that promotes global nonproliferation objectives.

Real and meaningful economic incentives, backed by U.S. and allied willingness to permit North Korea and Iran to possess civilian nuclear programs operated under stringent international monitoring, could succeed in rolling back North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and provide incentive for Iran to cease and desist in its own program.

But the key to any such salvation lies with the willingness of the Bush administration to unlink nonproliferation efforts from regime change. This is highly unlikely, given the reality of the ideological composition of those at the senior decision-making levels of the Bush national security team and the huge political investment Mr. Bush has made in support of his global crusade against tyranny.

“Freedom is on the march,” Mr. Bush has said. Unfortunately for the United States, North Korea and Iran don’t see it that way. And if America keeps marching, it could very well be in the direction of a nuclear apocalypse.

Scott Ritter, a former intelligence officer and U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, is author of the forthcoming Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of America’s Intelligence Conspiracy.

© 2005 Baltimore Sun