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Jan. 18, 2003, 10:27PM

Bush may face dangerous year

War on three fronts a possibility

Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared recently that the United States could win two wars at once if necessary, it sounded reassuring -- except that the nation eventually could be fighting three.

A possible war in Iraq looms larger by the day as tens of thousands of U.S. troops pour into the Persian Gulf region. Another war in North Korea may be unavoidable if the communist regime persists in building up a nuclear arsenal that could directly menace the United States and its allies as soon as this summer.

And then there's the global war the United States is waging against terrorism, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Philippines and Colombia.

President Bush is confronting what could prove to be one of the most perilous years the nation has endured in decades. If a war in Iraq begins, if a strike against North Korea becomes necessary, if terrorists hit America with yet another devastating blow -- and none of these scenarios requires much imagination -- the consequences for the United States and the world could be catastrophic.

America has faced momentous wars many times before, but usually serially and spaced out in intervals often measured in generations. This time, the dangers of multiple crises are converging in the Oval Office all at once. And the president's go-it-alone instincts and pre-emptive strike doctrines are coming under strain.

In a little more than a week, the Iraq crisis will come to a head. On Jan. 27, U.N. weapons inspectors will deliver what is likely to be an inconclusive report on their progress so far in Iraq, and the president then will have to decide his endgame: whether to send the more than 150,000 U.S. troops in the region to topple Saddam Hussein, or accede to the demands of many nations that he give the inspectors more time.

"It is not that we are in a rush to judgment," Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week. "We think that it has been a rather slow movement to judgment over the last 12 years. And now ... it is time to move rapidly to get to the bottom of the case with this regime."

America's approach to the world sounded so straightforward a year ago, when the president announced the foundation of the "Bush Doctrine" in his State of the Union address: "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

Yet the Bush Doctrine has proved to have a short half-life.

The administration's conviction that it could protect U.S. interests without the help of allies lasted only until the president concluded that he needed the imprimatur of the United Nations to confront Iraq over its weapons of mass destruction.

The declaration that dangerous regimes must not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons stood until the North Korean crisis, when Powell suggested a few weeks ago that Washington might have to live with the North possessing a few nuclear weapons after all.

And the administration's clear warning that it would interdict shipments of dangerous weapons around the world, issued in mid-December, lasted one day.

Only hours after the White House released its "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction," which contained the interdiction threat, the U.S. and Spanish navies seized and then released a North Korean ship containing Scud missiles bound for Yemen. The deadly cargo from a notorious arms merchant to an unstable Mideast regime got a pass, the White House explained, because Yemen has proved itself an ally in the war against al-Qaida terrorists.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote recently that "in foreign affairs, Washington is chronically unable to deal with more than one crisis at a time." Yet the foreign crises challenging the Bush administration go well beyond even Iraq, North Korea and the war against terrorism.

The long-festering conflict between Israelis and Palestinians could flare at any moment into a conflagration inciting even more terrorism against the United States. Iran is racing to build its own nuclear weapons. A leadership crisis in Venezuela and an ensuing general strike are wreaking havoc with U.S. oil supplies.

And if the White House has any attention span left after all of that, there's a famine unfolding in Ethiopia that may dwarf the 1984 disaster that claimed more than a million lives.

By far the toughest paradox the administration has had to explain is why it is treating the threats posed by Iraq and North Korea in such starkly different ways. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice repeats often that the United States cannot practice a "cookie-cutter foreign policy." But to many Americans, the dangers posed by Iraq and North Korea look to be part of the same batch.

The erratic and paranoid North Korean regime is believed to possess one or two nuclear weapons already, and in the past month it has expelled U.N. nuclear monitors, withdrawn from the international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and begun work to reopen a plutonium production line that experts say could produce a half-dozen more nuclear warheads within six months. For good measure, the regime has threatened to resume testing its medium- and long-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Japan, China and parts of the United States.

Yet the president has said repeatedly that the United States has no "hostile intent" toward North Korea -- overtly ruling out the possibility of a pre-emptive military strike against the North's nuclear sites -- and has instead held out the prospect of agricultural and fuel assistance if the Pyongyang regime will renounce its nuclear ambitions.

Iraq, by contrast, is not believed to have any nuclear weapons, and Saddam has permitted U.N. inspectors to roam the country since November in search of chemical, biological and nuclear stocks, although U.N. officials say the cooperation has been halfhearted at best.

Nevertheless, the administration is poised to invade Iraq, because officials contend that Saddam is essentially irredeemable: He has attacked his neighbors, used chemical weapons against his own people and concealed his weapons programs for more than a decade in defiance of repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Iraq also happens to be an easier target than North Korea, many administration critics point out.

"North Korea is an embarrassing reminder of the complications of the world," said Chas Freeman, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Clinton administration. "It does sort of put into high relief the notion that one of the reasons they picked Iraq as a target is that it's weak, relatively speaking."

Or, as one administration official preferred to put it: "You do Iraq now so it doesn't become North Korea later."


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