Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

North Korea's Missile Test and the Bush Doctrine

by Rahul Mahajan

ZNet Commentary (July 12 2006)

The controversy surrounding North Korea's recent failed test of its Taepodong-2 missile, puckishly launched on July 4 as Americans celebrated their narrow escape from Korean, Vietnamese, Nicaraguan, and Iraqi tyranny, offers a window into various prominent views on the use of force.

Former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry and his former assistant secretary, Ashton Carter, made quite a splash on June 22 with an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for a pre-emptive attack to destroy the missile, which was then apparently being fueled up for the launch.

This was not an acceptance of Bush's famously misnamed pre-emption doctrine. Essentially, the pre-emption doctrine says that if we can make a claim that it might be bad if some country someday got some kind of weapons of mass destruction, the United States can bomb it. Obviously, even a reckless empire like the United States today doesn't just apply that to every country it doesn't like - say, Venezuela - but it has asserted the right.

Perry and Carter were simply referring to a much more traditional doctrine that, if a threat to you is clearly in existence and being mobilized for possible use, you have the right to neutralize the threat instead of waiting to be attacked. Of course, the North Korean missile test was not a real threat. Even had the Taepodong-2 succeeded, it couldn't carry a significant payload as far as the United States. Even if it could, there's no indication that North Korea would attack the United States. No state has since Japan in 1941, a time before we had a nuclear arsenal that could annihilate every major population center on the planet. And yes, it's a little strange for a country that menaces the whole world in this way to complain about the threat some other country poses by a missile test.

In any case, though, what matters is not the actual facts but the way the foreign policy establishment perceives them. And there certainly is bipartisan consensus that the North Korean situation posed a threat. The Bush administration does not disagree.

And yet, their response was basically to do nothing. When asked about Perry and Carter's proposal on CNN, Dick Cheney pooh-poohed the whole notion, saying, "if you're going to launch a strike at another nation, you'd better be prepared to not just fire one shot".

In fact, Bush and Cheney are anything but mad bombers; they are very discriminating in picking their targets. Bill Clinton was the one who promiscuously used force as an element of diplomacy. In 1998 and 1999, just two years, Clinton bombed Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, and Serbia. Although Reagan had indulged in similar incidents of sort of random bombing as a show of force (as in Beirut and Libya), Clinton established it as a paradigm. Unlike Reagan, who was always highly constrained in shows of force, Clinton inherited a unipolar world.

The Bush administration, on the other hand, deliberately repudiates this method of doing business with the world. If they attack a country, they want to remove its government from power. This is the primary reason why, having taken out Afghanistan and Iraq, they are not moving against the rest of the "axis of evil". Even presented with a situation where they could have mustered broad support for attacking North Korea, they just sat on their hands. It's difficult to imagine what short of regime change would induce them to attack Iran or North Korea - and even more difficult to see how they could come up with a plan for regime change with all military assets bogged down in the quagmire of Iraq. Their foreign policy, formerly so aggressive, now appears ineffectual - they won't attack and they won't negotiate.

There is one thing Perry and Carter share with the Bush administration. In all their plans and scenarios regarding attacking these various countries, the attack is to be sold on the basis that the leaders of those countries - Saddam, Kim, the Iranian clerics - are crazy enough to attack a country poised to annihilate them. That's why we need to strike first. At the same time, they are fundamentally predicated on the sanity of those leaders - assuming Saddam wouldn't take the chance during a year of saber-rattling to funnel money and weapons to al-Qaeda, assuming they could take out the Taepo-dong and North Korea wouldn't retaliate with a devastating barrage on Seoul, and so on.

It's not just extreme mendacity, but actually part of a shared delusive complex. Makes you wonder which country really has the crazy leaders.


Rahul Mahajan is an author and freelance journalist, and publisher of the weblog Empire Notes at He has been to occupied Iraq twice and reported from Fallujah during the April 2004 assault. His most recent book is Full Spectrum Dominance: US Power in Iraq and Beyond (Seven Stories Press). He can be reached at

Bill Totten


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