When asked what the U.S. response would be the news that North Korea has detonated a nuclear device, President George W. Bush said that he would not use force because “diplomacy hasn’t run its course,” thus implying that he believes that the use of force should be a last resort. More explicitly making claim to this belief, he added, “I believe the commander in chief must try all diplomatic measures before we commit our military.” He used “military action in Iraq”, he declared, “because we tried the diplomacy.”
The statement is clear, the principle universal: The resort to violence must be a last one. One might add that it must also be for legitimate self-defense, but let us set this latter principle aside for the moment and concentrate on the former.
A mildly curious observer might question whether Bush (or anyone in his administration) actually believes in this universal principle, and a rational inquisitor might examine the not-too-distant past to test the claim provided as evidence of genuine adherence to the declared doctrine.
A simple and obvious question follows the declaration: Was the use of force in Iraq a last resort? To answer the question, we must begin by identifying the justification given; namely, the threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The declaration presumes that this threat was genuinely perceived to be real prior to the invasion. Let us accept this presumption for the moment and briefly review the diplomatic efforts that were underway to neutralize the perceived threat.
The diplomatic effort began with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, November 8, 2002, which called upon Iraq to allow the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) full access to verify disarmament. Iraq accepted the resolution and allowed inspectors into the country.
The Executive Chairman of UNMOVIC, Hans Blix, reported on December 19 that “Iraqi cooperation has been very helpful for” the “logistical and infrastructure build-up” required for the inspections process. “Access to sites has been prompt,” Blix reported, “and assistance on the sites expeditious.” Iraq had declared “that there were no weapons of mass destruction” while “individual governments have stated that they have convincing evidence to the contrary,” but UNMOVIC had no evidence disproving Iraq’s position. Under 1441, Iraq was to provide a declaration to assist the inspectors in verifying disarmament. The provided declaration provided some new information, but many issues were still “outstanding.” However, “In most cases, the issues are outstanding not because there is information that contradicts Iraq’s account, but simply because there is a lack of supporting evidence.”
Blix reported on January 9 that no “smoking gun” proving the existence of WMD had been found. Still, Iraq “must present credible evidence” that no WMD remained, not as a legal requirement (a burden to prove one’s innocence is hardly equitable), but to “create confidence.”
On January 27, Blix criticized Iraq for failing to provide evidence proving the negative and thus failing “to win the confidence of the world,” while acknowledging that Iraq “has on the whole cooperated rather well” with UNMOVIC.
Blix reported on February 14 that UNMOVIC’s capabilities had continued to grow. Teams had “conducted more than 400 inspections covering more than 300 sites. All inspections were performed without notice, and access was almost always provided promptly.” Blix said, “The results to date have been consistent with Iraq’s declarations.” Still, while one “must not jump to the conclusion” that WMD exist, “that possibility is also not excluded.”
On March 7, Blix declared that “No evidence of proscribed activities have so far been found.” Iraq had accepted that its Al Samoud 2 missiles were capable of exceeding the permissible range under UN resolutions and “has started the process of destruction under our supervision.” Investigations of sites where WMD were alleged to have been unilaterally destroyed years earlier had begun. UNMOVIC was preparing a “draft work programme” that would “identify the ‘key remaining disarmament tasks’.” It would still take “some time” to verify Iraq’s disarmament, but “It would not take years, nor weeks, but months.”
Blix made the Draft Work Programme available on March 19, a week before the deadline given by the Security Council. But the efforts of UNMOVIC were terminated the same day with the onset of the US air assault on Iraq, followed by a ground invasion the following day.
The US had “tried diplomacy,” and those diplomatic efforts threatened to achieve their stated objective of verifying that Iraq had been disarmed. Thus, the US ended the successful ongoing peaceful efforts to verify disarmament in favor of the use of violence.
But let us go further and question whether that the threat was perceived to be real to begin with. Let us put hindsight aside and examine a small sampling of the available facts known at the time, in order to test this assumption.
The gravest declared “threat” was most certainly that of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. The image of a “mushroom cloud” was brandied about by administration officials. Vice President Dick Cheney declared that Saddam Hussein “has reconstituted his nuclear program to develop a nuclear weapon,” citing as evidence its attempt to acquire “aluminum tubes.” He also suggested that Iraq may already have a nuclear weapon. Condoleezza Rice said “We do know that he is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon,” citing as evidence “aluminum tubes…that are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs.” Bush addressed the UN General Assembly, stating as fact that the tubes were to be “used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon.”
In fact, they were lying. The truth was that the view that the tubes were intended for a nuclear weapons program was a marginal one within the intelligence community and among experts in the field. It was a view the Central Intelligence Agency attempted to propagate, in furtherance of the official US policy of “regime change.” The CIA made a great effort to bolster its case, while acknowledging that the use of the tubes “would be inefficient and a step backward” for Iraq and that the tubes could also not be used in a centrifuge without significant alteration.
The Defense Intelligence Agency sided with the CIA, saying that it found the CIA’s case to be “very compelling,” apparently based on acceptance of the CIA’s claim that the tubes were a “match” to those used in a design known as the Zippe centrifuge. That was false, as the Department of Energy pointed out at the time. The tubes were not a “match” to the Zippe design. At the same time, both the CIA and DIA acknowledged that the tubes could be used for a conventional rocket system.
The nation’s top experts on centrifuges in the DOE assessed from the beginning that the tubes were “more likely” for “a different application” than centrifuges, noting that they were “consistent” with conventional rocket systems, and similar to tubes Iraq had used in such a system in the past. In the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, the DOE assessed “that the tubes probably are not part of” a nuclear weapons program.
The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) agreed with the DOE assessment, concluding “that the tubes are not intended” for a centrifuge program.
David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former investigator of Iraq’s nuclear program with the IAEA, released publicly a report noting that, contrary to public declarations by administration officials, “In fact, the intelligence community is deeply divided,” and that “ISIS has learned that U.S. nuclear experts who dissent from the Administration’s position are expected to remain silent.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency became aware of the tubes issue in the summer of 2001 and recognized immediately that Iraq had previously used tubes with identical dimensions in a conventional rocket program. Although the CIA sent an analyst to try to convince the IAEA of its case, IAEA experts pointed out a number of flaws in his analysis. After the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq, Director General of the IAEA Mohamed El Baradei noted that while the tubes were not suitable for a centrifuge program, they were “consistent with the purpose stated by Iraq,” which was that they were for a rocket program. He added that no evidence had been found of a revived nuclear weapons program.
Iraq was also said to have attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium in order to enrich it to weapons grade. This theory depended largely upon the myth that the aluminum tubes were to be used to enrich the uranium, exposed as fraudulent well before the invasion. The uranium claim itself was also proved to be a fraud prior to the invasion. Mohamed El Baradei, after finally haven been given the documents “which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger,” declared that they were “in fact not authentic.” He added that there was “no indication that Iraq has attempted to import uranium since 1990.”
These examples were not aberrations in the case for war, but examples of the modus operandi of the US government prior to the invasion. A similar examination of nearly every aspect of the case for war produces similar results, though such a study is beyond the scope of our present purpose. The point is that the notion that there was an “intelligence failure” is a myth, and most everybody knows it, despite popular pretenses to the contrary. To be sure, the emperor has no clothes.
Given these facts, how does Bush’s claim of adherence to the principle that force must be a lost resort only hold up? Not very well, to understate the obvious. But let’s turn from the Iraq example and test the adherence to the principle elsewhere.
Bush administration efforts at “diplomacy” are also instructive in the case of Afghanistan. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden was presumed to be the mastermind, and the US demanded that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan turn him over. When the Taliban refused, the US began bombing.
But bin Laden had been accused of crimes prior to 9/11, such as the bombing of two US embassies in Africa in 1988. The Taliban offered to put bin Laden on trial and hinted at extraditing him if the US provided the evidence against him. In February of 2001 the Taliban again said it would consider extraditing bin Laden to face trial, an offer which, again, was apparently not pursued. Soon after 9/11, leading Islamic clerics in Afghanistan recommended, in response to a request for a ruling from the Taliban, that bin Laden be encouraged to leave the country. The US rejected the option, demanding that the Taliban surrender him or face military attack. The Taliban said it would not surrender bin Laden without being presented with the evidence that he was involved in the 9/11 attacks. After the bombing began, the Taliban again said that if evidence was offered and the bombing stopped, “we would be ready to hand him over to a third country.” Bush rejected the offer, saying “We know he’s guilty. Turn him over.” Again, the use of force as an alternative peaceful means, rather than as a last resort, is apparent.
Next, take Iran. Iran insists its nuclear program is for energy purposes only, while the Bush administration has declared repeatedly that Iran intends to use the program to build a nuclear weapon. A National Intelligence Estimate put Iran ten years away from being able to construct a weapon. The IAEA has been monitoring Iran’s program, and while it has questions, concerns, and outstanding issues, it has so far found no proof that Iran’s program is intended for military purposes.
The administration has so far settled for what it describes as “diplomacy.” Condoleezza Rice said last year that “Military action isn’t on the agenda. The agenda is a diplomatic one.” At the same time, she insisted that the use of force was an “option.” “The American president never takes any option off the table,” she declared.
Needless to say, there is a fundamental inconsistency between declaring the use of force as a final resort and declaring it as an “option.” The word “option,” by definition, implies a choice; in the present case study, one between violence and peaceful means of settling disputes.
In January of this year, Rice declared that there was not “much room for further discussion” with Iran. While declaring that the US was “committed to a diplomatic course,” she reiterated that “The president takes no options off the table.”
In April, Bush was asked if “all options” included “the possibility of a nuclear strike” against Iran. He responded simply be repeating that “All options are on the table.” In other words, the use of nuclear weapons against Iran to punish it for its nuclear program, despite the lack of evidence that it was intended for military purposes, was a possible alternative to diplomacy that his administration would not dismiss.
When British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that it was “inconceivable” that force would be used against Iran, that there would be “no justification for it”, and that the suggestion that nuclear weapons could be used as an option was “nuts”, it may have cost him his job, according to several news reports. The Guardian said on May 6 that Straw’s “fate was sealed when the White House called Mr Blair and asked why the foreign secretary kept saying these things,” an observation also made by the Independent. The London Times reported on August 8 that the White House “had put pressure on Tony Blair to change his Foreign Secretary” and concluded that Straw “was effectively dismissed by an American President.”
The Bush administration has repeatedly made clear that the use of force is not a last resort, but an “option”; an alternative to peaceful means to resolve disputes. The corollary is that the reason the US has thus far declined to use military force against North Korea is not because diplomatic efforts have been exhausted; not due to any adherence to the moral principle that regards the use of force as a last resort. Therefore, there must be other explanations.
We may speculate the reasons. For one, the US is bogged down in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and cannot spare the military resources. For another, North Korea, unlike Iraq, does not sit on some of the world’s largest oil reserves. Unlike Afghanistan, it is not a located in a crucial region desirable as a conduit for piping oil and natural gas. Thirdly, North Korea, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, is not totally defenseless, particularly now that it has laid claim to a nuclear deterrent.
A lesson for Iran and other “rogue” nations is that a nuclear deterrent is desirable. This is not to say the US should attack North Korea—far from it. It is not to say that this is the lesson learned from the disinclination to use violence. Rather, this is the lesson that follows from the historical use of force by the US, continuing with the Bush administration, not as a last resort, but as an alternative to diplomacy.