Iraq belongs on back burner

Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2002 at 9:04 p.m.
North Korea's startling revival of its nuclear program, coupled with the unrelenting threat of international terrorism, present compelling reasons for President Bush to step back from his fixation on attacking Iraq and to reassess the nation's priorities.
North Korea's reopening of its plutonium reprocessing plant at Yongbyon puts it within six months of being able to produce sufficient weapons-grade material to generate several nuclear bombs.
Contrast this with Iraq. Not only is North Korea much further along than Iraq in building nuclear weapons but, by virtue of its longer-range missiles, it has a greater delivery capability.
Every option for dealing with this situation - including the administration's "structured containment" - is fraught with danger and potentially disastrous consequences.
Having participated in the discussions leading up to the now-violated 1994 agreed framework with North Korea, I am convinced that this crisis requires sustained attention from top government officials, including the president.
It's important to remember that devising a solution for the North Korean crisis will require sustained diplomatic efforts with China, South Korea and other countries of the region. All this will take time, energy and attention.
And then there is the war on terrorism. Deadly terrorist attacks continue around the globe, shattering the tranquility in far-flung places such as Indonesia, Kenya, Jordan and Yemen, where three American missionaries were killed by a gunman Monday.
Here at home, we remain highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks and woefully unprepared to cope with the consequences. We cannot put this issue on the back burner.
In foreign affairs, Washington is chronically unable to deal with more than one crisis at a time.
As deputy secretary of state in the Carter administration, I helped to negotiate the release of 52 Americans held hostage in the United States Embassy in Iran.
I recall how this relatively confined crisis submerged all other issues for 14 months, including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Similarly, in the early years of the Clinton administration, our concentration on Bosnia and Haiti may have drawn our attention away from the killings in Rwanda.
While Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may be right in saying that our military can fight two wars at the same time, my experience tells me that we cannot mount a war against Iraq and still maintain the necessary policy focus on North Korea and international terrorism.
Anyone who has worked at the highest levels of our government knows how difficult it is to engage the attention of the White House on anything other than the issue of the day.
For example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a major crisis by any standard - now seems to be handled largely by an assistant secretary of state. Likewise, Afghanistan, which is at risk again of becoming a haven for terrorists, seems to be getting less attention than it deserves.
A U.S.-led attack on Iraq will overshadow all other foreign policy issues for at least a year. In the early months, the news media can be expected to offer wall-to-wall combat stories, covered with characteristic one-dimensional intensity.
Even if the optimistic predictions of quick victory prove to be accurate, we would then find ourselves absorbed with the occupation of Iraq and efforts to impose democracy on the fractious elements of that country.
Unless the president has been provided intelligence about Iraq's capacities that he has not shared or even hinted at in his public statements, the threats from North Korea and from international terrorism are more imminent than those posed by Iraq.
No doubt the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein reigning in Iraq, but we must recognize that the effort of removing him right now may well distract us from dealing with graver threats.
We now have in place in Iraq a much stronger inspection regime than we had only a few months ago, and it would be both consistent with our obligations to the United Nations and conducive to sound relations with our allies to let that effort run its natural course.
The present murky picture of Iraq's capacities and intentions may become much clearer after a sustained period of regular and surprise inspections and interrogations of Iraqi scientists in noncoercive circumstances.
Under our constitutional system, the president has pre-eminent power to establish priorities in foreign affairs - reinforced in the case of Iraq by congressional action. Nevertheless, the decision to start a war, especially a pre-emptive war, requires a vision wider than the sole question of whether a favorable outcome is possible or likely.
Before Bush gives the signal to attack Iraq, he should take a new, broad look at the question of whether such a war, at this moment, is the right priority for America.
In light of recent developments, failure to revisit the question would reflect a level of confidence in the present course that is unwarranted and unwise.
Warren Christopher was secretary of state from 1993 to 1997.

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