In this space last week, I commented that the choice for the United States in North Korea was probably between a catastrophic war and permitting North Korea to keep its nuclear program and its reported small nuclear arsenal, and I suggested that of the two alternatives the second, though itself highly undesirable, was the better. It was anything but obvious, however, that such a course would be adopted, much less that this would happen just one week later. Yet the retreat may in fact now be under way. According to the New York Times, the Bush Administration has given up its goal of preventing North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons and instead will concentrate on stopping it from exporting nuclear materials to others. “The President said that the central worry is not what they’ve got, but where it goes,” an Administration official told the paper. But since, as the Times points out in an accompanying editorial, this goal is as unlikely to be achieved as preventing the creation of the materials in the first place, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the new policy is anything more than a fig leaf designed to disguise the failure of the old policy. In effect, the Administration has decided that in the case of North Korea, at least, proliferation is better than war.

The reversal of policy is dramatic. Let us recall that in his State of the Union address in 2002, delivered four months after the attack of September 11, the President declared what in effect was an ultimatum to proliferators: “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” He placed three regimes in the “worst” category–Iraq, Iran and North Korea–and famously called them an axis of evil. His policy up-ended the precedents of half a century. Previously, the United States had pursued nonproliferation solely by diplomatic and political means. It had never attacked a nation to stop it from obtaining either nuclear weapons or any other weapon of mass destruction. Now the Bush Administration proposed to stop proliferation by force.

The United States has just forcibly removed the regime in Iraq in pursuit of the President’s policy. The proclaimed goals of the war were two: to seize weapons of mass destruction allegedly possessed by that regime and to demonstrate to other countries what might happen to them if they seek weapons of mass destruction. Quite recently, the President stated that “any outlaw regime that has ties to terrorist groups, and seeks and possesses weapons of mass destruction, is a grave danger to the civilized world, and will be confronted.” In the meantime, however, the North Korean regime has been learning an opposite lesson. It decided that the path to safety–the way to avoid “regime change” by the United States–was not to forgo nuclear weapons but to obtain them immediately in order to have, in its words, a “powerful deterrent.” In making this decision, the North Korean government was not doing anything unusual. From the first days of the nuclear age down to the present, nuclear proliferation has been driven by the fear of nuclear attack by others. Even the United States, the world’s first nuclear proliferator, built the bomb because it feared that Hitler would get one first. Later, the policy of preventing nuclear attack by threatening nuclear retaliation was formalized in the strategy of nuclear deterrence, which became an almost unchallengeable dogma during the cold war years.

But after September 11, Bush declared that deterrence was inadequate to our new post-cold war realities and that he stood ready to launch “pre-emptive” (actually preventive) war, as he has just done in Iraq. It has turned out, however, that the deterrence policies that were being dropped by the United States were at the same time being taken up by North Korea. Now the United States itself has been deterred by nuclear arms, and it is preventive war that has had to be dropped. The bomb, once the hallmark of a “superpower,” has become an equalizer in the hands of small, poor nations.

The remaining “axis” country, Iran, seems to be seeking the same solution to its vulnerability in the face of the American threat. Although it forswears any intention of building nuclear arms, it has, like North Korea, announced that it possesses a uranium-enrichment program. It seems very unlikely that the United States will be able to practice violent “regime change” against Iran. The United States will have its hands more than full in the years to come trying to impose its will on the Iraqi people, who as yet show little sign of accepting American rule. Any attempt to attack and occupy Iran would be a further step into this quagmire.

In short, the Bush policy of stopping proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by force has failed. In Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and with every day that passes it seems unlikely that any weapons significant enough to justify the war will be discovered. In North Korea, a vigorous nuclear program not only exists but evidently has proved unstoppable by military means. In Iran, a nuclear program is in full swing, and the prospects of preventing it by force seem nil. Not even full democratization of that country, should the people of Iran choose this path, will insure denuclearization. All factions in Iran are agreed that their country has the right to counter Israel’s nuclear arsenal by building one of its own.

As welcome as is the Administration’s apparent choice of proliferation over war, it leaves the United States without a nonproliferation policy. One must be found. Otherwise the emergence of North Korea, and probably of Iran, as nuclear powers will lead to still another round of proliferation in North Asia and the Middle East. The failure of the Bush policy offers some lessons. One is that nuclear possessors make bad enforcers of nonproliferation. Every possessor was in fact once a proliferator, and possession by one country has always in fact been the motor of proliferation by others. The process is not stopped but speeded up by a policy of forcible disarmament–“counterproliferation”–which places the United States in the hopeless position of defending a global double standard by force. Nuclear disarmament, like virtue, must begin at home.