President Bush has adopted very different policies toward Iraq and North Korea, despite having provocatively labeled both countries part of the “Axis of Evil,” along with Iran. He has repeatedly threatened war if Iraq does not divulge and eliminate its purported weapons of mass destruction, has been moving US troops into the Gulf region to demonstrate the seriousness of his intent, has engaged in threatening practice bombing runs over Iraqi territory, and has been illegally arming and inciting opposition forces to initiate a civil war in Iraq. But, with regard to North Korea, which has now admitted to having a nuclear weapons program and is known to have advanced delivery systems, Bush has made clear that he prefers to rely on diplomacy over military action.

Iraq appears to be cooperating with the UN weapons inspectors, while North Korea has asked the inspectors to leave its country and has given notice of its intent to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as is its legal right, in order to pursue, if it chooses, a nuclear weapons program free from treaty restraints. Why, then, is war the prospect for Iraq and diplomacy for North Korea?

Bush seeks to justify the distinction by insisting that Iraq poses special dangers because it has invaded neighboring countries in the past and has previously used non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction. This distinction, however, seems dubious, especially given past US policies. Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 at the urging of the US, and the US was fully aware of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in its war against Iran and against the Kurds. At the time the US was supporting Iraq and even supplying it with many of the components needed to produce chemical and biological weaponry. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US ambassador at the time sent mixed signals, telling Saddam Hussein that its dispute with Kuwait was a matter of only regional concern.

The two aggressive wars initiated by Iraq during Saddam’s rule both involve a measure of US complicity. Iraq has not acted aggressively toward neighbors during the past decade. Iraq fully understands that if it were to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction at this point it would face almost certain annihilation, and nothing in Saddam Hussein’s career, however brutal, suggests such irrationality. Indeed, the Baghdad regime has always given highest priority to its own survival and to that of the Iraqi state.

The Bush administration has set itself up as the arbiter of who is and who is not allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction. This is not a strategy likely to succeed without giving American foreign policy a militarist character that includes being constantly prepared for warfare in remote parts of the world. In recent years, the US failed to stop India and Pakistan from developing and possessing nuclear weaponry. Nor did it act to prevent Israel from developing its own nuclear arsenal, and even appears to have supported Israel’s program in various ways. At a minimum, the US certainly turned a blind eye toward this dangerous addition to the nuclear weapons club. Bush has chosen to continue these policies, which predate his presidency, despite his seeming preoccupation with nuclear proliferation.

The Arab world is keenly aware that the US has adopted very different standards for Iraq and North Korea, and also with respect to Iraq and Israel. There is no acceptable explanation of this double standard other than the strategic opportunism of Washington.

Is the real rationale for the policy that the US doesn’t want unpredictable leaders to develop nuclear arsenals? Doubtful, because North Korea, Pakistan and Israel each currently have unpredictable leaders.

Is the policy that the US will only allow its allies to develop nuclear arsenals? Also doubtful, because North Korea, India and Pakistan are not properly regarded as allies, although Pakistan has temporarily shifted its alignment due to pressure from Washington in the aftermath of September 11th.

Is the policy that the US will use the suspected development of weapons of mass destruction as an excuse to intervene in a country that sits on large oil reserves? One cannot help feeling that oil is a major economic and strategic interest that helps explain why the Bush administration seems so intent on waging war against Iraq as a prelude to regime change. There may be other political and strategic motivations as well, including the desire to assert regional dominance in the Middle East and eliminate a troublesome leader.

We believe that the US government needs to develop a consistent policy on weaponry of mass destruction that applies to all nations. President Bush’s pursuit of a diplomatic solution with North Korea seems like the right course of action, especially if compared to its approach to Iraq.

The US Government needs to enter into negotiations with North Korea, rather than seeking to isolate it. The United States must also be willing to offer security assurances as well as much needed development assistance to the people in North Korea in exchange for the North Koreans forgoing their nuclear option. It would be diplomatically constructive for the US to encourage the establishment of a Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone that covers the two Koreas, Japan, Taiwan, and that portion of Chinese and US nuclear forces deployed in Northeast Asia. It would also be helpful to support reunification discussions between Seoul and Pyongyang.

With regard to Iraq, the Bush administration should also be willing to enter into negotiations. The UN inspectors, after all, have already reportedly visited well over 200 Iraqi sites, selected on the basis of intelligence leads, and have so far found no evidence of prohibited weaponry. If the Bush administration has information, as it repeatedly has claimed, that Iraq has violated the UN mandate on eliminating its weapons of mass destruction, it has an obligation to provide this information to the UN inspectors so that they can carry out their work. In the event that Iraq is cleared by the UN inspectors with respect to nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programs, the US should end its sanctions against Iraq and certainly end the bombing of the No-Fly Zones that it established in Iraq more than a decade ago without any authorization by the Security Council.

To be consistent in its efforts to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, the Bush administration should put pressure on Israel to eliminate its nuclear arsenal. Resolution 687, calling for Iraq’s nuclear disarmament, makes note of the calls to create a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone and Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone. The US should seek to realize these goals, and this will not be possible unless Israel’s nuclear arsenal is dismantled. As a major donor of military aid to Israel, the US is in a position to exert a benign influence on Israel’s policy on these issues that will be helpful in the pursuit of regional stability and a just peace throughout the Middle East.

The US has wrongly treated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a one-way street for more than 30 years. From the outset the treaty was negotiated as a two-way street. The non-nuclear weapons states gave up their right to acquire or develop nuclear weapons in return for a solemn promise by the nuclear weapons states to engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament. The US, as well as other nuclear weapons states, has not upheld its part of the bargain, which is a “material breach” of the treaty. It has also been unacceptable to other countries, particularly those that feel threatened by US foreign policy.

Consistency, however, is not enough. Non-proliferation is increasingly being revealed as a dead-end that is not capable of protecting the peoples of the world against the dire possibility of a nuclear war. If the US really wants to put an end to the threat of nuclear proliferation, it must demonstrate that it has the political will to propose and engage in serious negotiations for the total elimination of all nuclear weapons in the world, including its own, as called for almost 35 years ago in the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

War is not a solution to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The only approach with some chance of success depends on a demonstrable political will to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. When the US demonstrates this political will, the inspection procedures and institutional structures to guard against cheating can be established, tested and gradually implemented. Only at that point can the world begin to breathe more easily.

Moving in this direction will require a sea change in the strategy of the US Government, but it is the only policy that will have the consistency and international support needed to succeed, and is by far the best way to reduce the threat of nuclear catastrophe. Until the United States is prepared to forego its own nuclear weapons option, preventing others from doing what we have been doing for more than half a century will seem like an extreme version of moral hypocrisy. It is time for Americans to realize that reliance on nuclear weapons is incompatible with our most fundamental moral and legal obligations as well as with preventing and reversing nuclear proliferation.
*Richard Falk, visiting professor, Global Studies, University of California at Santa Barbara, is chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. David Krieger is a founder and president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.