Tehran or Pyongyang?

North Korea claims to have tested a nuclear weapon. Iran refuses to halt its uranium enrichment program. The non-proliferation regime teeters on the brink. Washington’s uncompromising tactics with both Tehran and Pyongyang have failed to achieve anything but the most radioactive results.

When President Bush introduced the “axis of evil” of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea in his 2002 State of the Union address, he seemed to be establishing a hit list for U.S. military interventions. Four years later, the targeted countries instead represent the three most prominent foreign policy failures of the administration. Iraq is a mess, North Korea has battered down the door of the nuclear club, and Iran has moved in a more hardline direction under its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

If Washington were sensible, it would cut its losses: negotiate a withdrawal from Iraq and sit down with both Iran and North Korea to negotiate face-saving agreements. Instead, American policy analysts and American citizens are fearful of the next war. Will it be a military strike against Tehran or Pyongyang?

Squeezing Tehran

Publicly, the United States has focused on using sanctions to deter Iran and North Korea from pursuing their nuclear aims. With Iran, the Bush administration has tightened “the financial noose on Iran, banning interaction with one of Iran’s leading government-owned bank, Bank Saderat,” writes Farideh Farhi in an FPIF policy report. Congress passed the Iran Freedom Support Act, extending sanctions against investments in the country’s oil industry for another five years.

But sanctions may only be the visible tip of the iceberg. As FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan argues in War or Rumors of War, the Bush administration has kept the military option on the table and not simply on a rhetorical level. “Given the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sheer cost of existing military commitments, it would seem that the last thing the United States can afford right now is another war,” she writes. But the Bush administration hasn’t used much reality-based reasoning in its Iraq policy. She concludes that the administration “is therefore unlikely to use common sense in evaluating whether to attack Iran.”

FPIF contributor Phyllis Bennis believes that, leading up to the November mid-term U.S. elections, another factor might be decisive. “Growing opposition to the prospect of an Iran War,” she writes in an op-ed, “might lead some members of the Bush administration to decide the political cost of such a reckless adventure is too high.”

Surrounding Pyongyang

The Bush administration has been approaching the situation in North Korea with almost identical hardheadedness. Instead of negotiating with Pyongyang, it has insisted on a multilateral format—the Six Party Talks—that has gone nowhere. It has applied a series of sanctions, including limits on financial transactions that fail to discriminate between North Korea’s illicit operations and its legitimate economic activities.

As with Iran, the Bush administration has insisted on keeping all options on the table, even though the Pentagon has made it clear that a military strike against North Korea would lead to retaliatory strikes that would kill tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean soldiers and civilians. As with Iran, the Pentagon has confessed that it would have great difficulty eliminating the dispersed nuclear facilities in North Korea.

North Korea has not made matters easier. It went ahead with missile launches in July and now a test in early October, even though both actions have further alienated its already ambivalent ally China. Even after its most recent provocation, however, Pyongyang has declared its continued willingness to negotiate. It doesn’t have much choice. A nuclear weapon can’t feed its people or rebuild its factories.

Will an attack on Iran or North Korea be the administration’s October surprise? The rally-around-the-flag effect of bombing either North Korea or Iran would be overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the immediate consequences, not to mention the longer term blowback. For military, economic, and electoral reasons, it doesn’t make sense for the Bush administration to launch an attack against any country at this moment. Alas, the administration seems to be singing only one tune these days, that old Talking Heads favorite: Stop Making Sense.

Saving the World

If the chaos of the Iraq war and the prospect of military attacks on North Korea and Iran weren’t sufficiently depressing, there’s always global warming to worry about. Several years ago, 162 nations signed and ratified the Kyoto protocol to reduce the emission of gasses that have contributed to climate change. The United States signed the treaty, but has not ratified it.

FPIF analyst Hoff Stauffer argues that the Kyoto’s focus on “cap and trade,” which establishes a market for trading pollution credits, is the wrong approach. He maintains that the older and more reliable strategy of establishing stricter standards—on factories, cars, and home appliances—will have a much greater impact on reducing the production of greenhouse gasses. His essay, part of a larger FPIF strategic dialogue on climate change, is worth reading all the way through. But go here if you need the 60 Second Expert version.

Recently, a group of activists decided to go to Singapore to change the world by trying to change the World Bank. Many key civil society activists, including FPIF columnist Walden Bello, weren’t even let into the country. FPIF analyst Peter Bosshard puts this ban into the larger context of the World Bank’s failure to listen to people on the ground where its development projects threaten the livelihoods of so many.

Elsewhere at FPIF, Tom Barry investigates the fear-mongering of the Bush administration and Jim Lobe analyzes how the United States has scrapped the Geneva Conventions.

If you’re in the Washington area, please join us on October 18 for the 30th annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award event sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies. The international award will be going to Maher Arar and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Arar is a Canadian citizen detained by U.S. officials in 2002, accused of terrorist links, and handed over to Syrian authorities renowned for torture. Last month, the Canadian government confirmed that Arar had been brutally tortured and is innocent of all charges. The Center for Constitutional Rights has taken up his case.