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In March 2003, two weeks before a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq to disarm Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction program, President George W. Bush was asked to assess progress on U.S. policy toward North Korea, which was the "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement" of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Bush replied: "It’s in process. If they don’t work diplomatically, they’ll have to work militarily. And military option is our last choice."
Calling a North Korean nuclear weapon “unacceptable,” in May 2003 President Bush declared: “We will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea. We will not give in to blackmail. We will not settle for anything less than the complete, verifiable and irreversible elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.”
Over the next six years, neither the diplomatic nor military approach worked to compel North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program. Between 2003 and when President Bush left office in January 2009, it is estimated (PDF) that North Korea’s plutonium stockpile increased from 1-2 bombs worth of fissile material to 7-11. Today, North Korea has between 6 and 10 bombs worth of plutonium, including the material used in the nuclear tests that took place in October 2006 and May 2009.
(Although sensors did not detect (PDF) radionuclide evidence after the second test, it was believed to be a plutonium bomb. It is unknown if North Korea has produced highly-enriched uranium (HEU) at the gas centrifuge facility shown to an unofficial U.S. delegation in November 2010, estimated to be capable of producing one bomb’s worth of HEU per year, or at other enrichment sites that the Obama administration said exists.)
As it turned out, the existence of several North Korean nuclear weapons were both tolerable and acceptable to the Bush administration. The collective weight of the Six Party Talks, economic sanctions, and positive incentives in the form of fuel oil or security guarantees failed to convince the North Korean regime to abandon their nuclear program and accept intrusive verification. As Arthur Brown, CIA East Asian division chief during the first term of the Bush administration, asked pointedly: “If you were Kim [Jong-il], would you give up the only thing that has protected your regime from collapse?”
Although former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld placed two dozen B-52 bombers and B-1 bombers on high alert to deter “opportunism,” the Bush administration never seriously considered a preemptive attack on North Korean nuclear facilities for a number of reasons: the military was busy with regime change in Iraq; South Korean citizens would have borne the brunt of retaliatory artillery and rocket attacks; and there were no guarantees that airstrikes would effectively destroy the plutonium or any assembled nuclear warheads. As a Bush administration official readily acknowledged in December 2002: “I’m not saying we don’t have military options. I’m just saying we don’t have good ones.’’
Re-reading contemporary news accounts and the memoirs of senior Bush administration officials, it is striking that none believed the policies they developed, defended publicly, and implemented would achieve their strategic objective—the "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement" of North Korean nuclear weapons.
There is an important lesson to be learned from the twenty years invested in U.S. efforts to disarm North Korea, with particular application to the unfolding crisis over the Iranian nuclear program: there are some foreign policy objectives that simply cannot be achieved given the amount of attention and resources that policymakers are willing to commit. President Bush could have virtually assured that North Korea did not possess a bomb by authorizing a ground invasion that removed Kim Jong-il from power, subdued the military, and verified the absence of nuclear material north of the 38th parallel. However, the economic and human costs of such a military campaign would have been catastrophic. Thankfully, President Bush didn’t live up to his word.
In the recent uproar over Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, political leaders are once again vowing to achieve a maximalist strategic objective without demonstrating any willingness to commit the necessary resources to assure its success. After President Obama was elected, and again in the White House, he reaffirmed that Iranian nuclear “weaponization…is not acceptable.” Other world leaders have echoed President Obama’s commitment, including Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, and David Cameron, who said it is “the clear view in Europe that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is fundamentally unacceptable." Even while opposing additional sanctions on Iran, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated, “China adamantly opposes Iran developing and possessing nuclear weapons."
It is important to note that there is no evidence from the U.S. intelligence community or the IAEA confirming that Iran has decided to pursue a nuclear weapon. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta clarified the U.S. position: “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability.”
However, if it were known with certainty that Tehran authorized the completion of a bomb, do world leaders truly believe that the previously implemented policies will prevent Iran from doing so? If so, it would only be possible with an array of covert actions in Iran, which have never been reported in the press. If not—as was the case of the Bush administration and North Korea—Iran could be another instance where policymakers promise a strategic policy objective that cannot be verifiably achieved.
Maximalist rhetoric should not constrain the pursuit of other policies that fall short of the ultimate goal. In the case of the Iranian nuclear program, this should include negotiations without preconditions; containment in cooperation with U.S. regional partners; deterrence through conventional and strategic military power; targeted economic sanctions that limit Iran’s access to dual-use exports; and countering influence in the public sphere and international institutions. To prevent another political and military quagmire, it is essential that the Obama administration limit the rhetoric and focus on prudent, responsible, and achievable policy objectives.