Eric Alterman asks if oil is the reason why we’re not engaging more strongly with North Korea. It’s a line that’s being commonly spouted by many in opposition to war in Iraq, and there is an element of truth to it, but it largely misses the point.
For the record, yes, one of the reasons for invading Iraq is oil. But it isn’t about ensuring the cheap flow of Iraqi oil. Rather, it’s about safeguarding the region. If Saddam Hussein were to have a nuclear weapon and invade Saudi Arabia, what would our response be? It’s not at all sure that we would risk exposing our troops to nuclear annihilation to remove him. At that point, Saddam Hussein becomes one of the most powerful individuals in the world. It would not only be the "oil whore" United States that would be harmed, but Europe and Asia who depend on Saudi oil even more than we do. The effects of that scenario would be nightmarish. The US economy would be in absolute turmoil. If Saddam managed to smuggle a weapon into the US the effects would be even worse – even if he never uses a WMD, having one gives him much more leverage than anyone can afford.
North Korea is more simple and yet more problematic. North Korea already has a stockpile of nuclear weapons by now. They also have delivery mechanisms. This immediately means that a military operation is virtually unthinkable. We cannot risk millions of casualties in Seoul if the North decides to lob a nuclear-laden Scud south. So, all we have left is a diplomatic option.
Unfortunately, as with Iraq, diplomacy isn’t going to end the situation. A Saddam Hussein or a Kim Jung Il isn’t going to negotiate anything that diminishes their military capacity. Even if we offer fuel oil and food, the North is not going to remove the nuclear arsenal and they will not stop producing nuclear weapons. Even if we threaten force, they have too much leverage to make that threat credible.
The two main reasons why Iraq is different is that Iraq doesn’t have that leverage and containment.
Iraq does not yet have nuclear weapons. They may have biological weapons, but those do not have the destructive force or necessarily the long-lasting effects of nuclear weapons. (Although from a civilian standpoint they’re probably worse.) Furthermore, we have ten years of intelligence as to where the Iraqis have stored their WMDs. One of my predictions is that intelligence will mean that Saddam’s command over those weapons will be immediately eliminated at the start of any strike. In other words, Saddam doesn’t have enough deterrence to prevent us from using military power to remove him. While the short term effects may be difficult, we’ve had contingency plans for this operation for years. That means we’re more than ready for this, and have been for some time.
The other key difference is that North Korea is more or less contained. North Korea is surrounded by strong powers, while Iraq is not. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese have any vested interest in seeing North Korea run amok. Especially in the case of China, the Beijing government’s interests are now firmly with trade and economics. North Korea threatens to throw a monkey wrench into those plans. After the DPRK tried to create it’s own free-trade join near the Chinese border using a Chinese business leader, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are strained. The Chinese may well be willing to act as a leash on the DPRK in order to avoid any spillover from a conflict in the region.
The cases of Iraq and North Korea are very different in the way they need to be handled. The lesson of North Korea is clear – we cannot afford to wait until a rogue state obtains weapons of mass destruction before taking action, else we risk escalating conflict dramatically in the long term for only a short-term reduction.