With the recent US setbacks and scandals in Iraq, you’d think the White House would abandon the President’s aggressive, unilateralist military policy–the “Bush Doctrine”–and seek to avoid new confrontations abroad. But there are signs that the Administration is girding up for confrontations in three more places–Iran, North Korea and Taiwan/China.
The first of these countries to face a higher level of pressure will be Iran. In the mid-1990s Iran acquired advanced centrifuge systems from Pakistan that could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons and has since sought to mass-produce the devices at a number of secret facilities. Such activities violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Tehran signed in 1968. Under intense pressure from Britain, France and Germany, Iran agreed this past October to freeze all work at these facilities and to permit intrusive inspections by officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency. A new crisis erupted in February, however, when IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei revealed that Iran had omitted several nuclear facilities from its October declaration to the agency. Tehran responded by delaying the IAEA inspections. Then, it announced that it was starting work at yet another undeclared facility, a uranium enrichment plant at Isfahan. The Iranians insist that all of this is intended for peaceful purposes only and that they have no intention of manufacturing nuclear weapons. But officials in Washington are saying that evidence of a covert Iranian nuclear-arms program is mounting, prompting the need for more muscular action.
The next flashpoint is likely to come later this summer, when the IAEA will press for complete disclosure by Iran of all its uranium-enrichment activities and the permanent cessation of any project with weapons-making potential. The Bush Administration has indicated its willingness to give the IAEA a bit more time to compel Iranian compliance, but it has suggested that any further foot-dragging by Tehran could lead to a showdown with the United States. The White House has not given Iran a final deadline for full compliance with IAEA demands or indicated what action it would take if Tehran fails to halt all suspect activities. However, US officials have hinted that if Iran doesn’t act soon, Washington will call on the UN Security Council to impose economic sanctions or other punitive measures. The Iranians could, of course, agree to US demands and thereby avert a major confrontation. If they resist, however, tensions are sure to mount. Although the White House is in no position to order an invasion of Iran, given the continuing disorder in Iraq, it could launch airstrikes against suspect nuclear facilities in Iran, thus allowing Bush to portray himself, again, as the unflinching defender of American security.
The next crisis in line for presidential attention concerns North Korea. The long-building North Korean crisis began in October 2002, when the United States revealed that Pyongyang had acquired centrifuge technology from Pakistan and had begun to enrich uranium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The North Koreans admitted this and stated their intention to acquire an operational nuclear arsenal. Right-wing hawks in Washington called for military action to eliminate the North Korean nuclear capacity, but the While House has embraced a diplomatic approach intended to pressure Pyongyang into meeting US demands. The principal vehicle for this effort is the “six-power talks,” with China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia and the United States, that started in August 2003 in Beijing. The last round of six-party talks, in February, produced an agreement to convene “working groups” on assorted issues but no pledge from Pyongyang that it would eliminate its nuclear arsenal. The next round is set for June 23. In April during a meeting with Chinese officials, Vice President Cheney warned that the six-party talks must show “real results” soon or Washington would be forced to consider more forceful steps.
As in the case of Iran, the first step is likely to be a call on the UN Security Council to condemn North Korea and impose strict economic sanctions. This would almost certainly provoke a harsh response from Pyongyang, and US and South Korean forces would be put on high alert. The Pentagon has already begun moving additional forces into the region, including, most ominously, a squadron of nuclear-capable B-52 bombers.
The third impending crisis, involving China and Taiwan, has recently become more acute. In March, President Chen Shui-bian, who has vowed to move the island further along the road to independence from mainland China, was re-elected. Chen won a larger share of votes than he did in the previous election (when three candidates vied for the presidency), and popular support for independence is growing. Chinese leaders have recently issued fresh threats of military action, and while Beijing is thought to lack the capacity to invade and occupy Taiwan, it does possess hundreds of short-range ballistic missiles capable of striking the island. Officially, the United States is opposed to any unilateral move by Taipei to declare its independence. But the Bush Administration announced in April that it would sell Taiwan $1.78 billion worth of advanced radar equipment, effectively tying that country’s defenses to America’s burgeoning ballistic missile defense system. This action suggests Washington is prepared to supply the Taiwanese with the military gear to resist any Chinese attack, including an all-out missile barrage. This would mean that Taiwan eventually could declare independence without fear of Chinese retaliation–a situation that can only be read in Beijing and Taipei as an open invitation by Washington to move in this direction.
The United States and China have, of course, clashed over Taiwan on many occasions, but now the United States appears to be offering Taiwan a credible route to independence. This development would be viewed by Chinese leaders as a threat to their continued authority–and could provoke a desperate and extremely dangerous last-minute bid to resolve the crisis through military action. US leaders surely know this, so their decision to proceed with the BMD sale suggests they are willing to risk such a cataclysm.
While the Administration’s intentions remain obscure, two points are worthy of concern. First, the Administration could heat up the international atmosphere before the election to reinforce the “don’t change leaders in the middle of a crisis” argument. Second, even if it doesn’t, we’ve been given a taste of what we can expect in a second Bush Administration. Either way, we see that the White House is not inhibited by the current turmoil in Iraq from moving into even more dangerous waters.