Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Even a Flat Earth Has Speedbumps

Today, safely behind the firewall, Thomas Friedman laments that the "post-cold war" seemingly ended two days ago, with North Korea's test of a nuclear bomb. Dare I ask, where has he been for the last five years?
This post-post-cold-war era will be defined by three new features — if things continue as they are. First is a nuclear Asia, triggered by North Korea’s flaunting of its nuclear weapons. How long will Japan, Taiwan and South Korea remain nonnuclear with Kim Jong-il brandishing his bomb? Second is a nuclear Middle East. Iran is almost certain to follow North Korea’s lead, and once the Shiite Persians in Iran have the bomb, how long will it be before the Sunni Arabs in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, even Syria have one too? Third is a disintegrating Iraq in the heart of the Arab world, with its destabilizing impact on oil prices and terrorism.
Okay... for that "first" thing, giving all due consideration to the fact that I may have been looking at a globe as opposed to a flat map, to this point I had been under the impression that India and Pakistan were in Asia. That India went nuclear first, inspiring Pakistan to follow its lead. And in terms of nuclear proliferation, I had been under the impression that Pakistan has had a thing or two to do with the spread of nuclear weapons technology, including to North Korea. So in the post-cold war area in which Friedman sees India as a leader in peaceful economic development, he should also consider its role in expanding the "nuclear club" and in undermining non-proliferation. It's not a question of whether we trust India with the bomb, are suspicious of Pakistan, and are aghast at the notion of of a nuclear-armed North Korea. It's a matter of whether or not we truly stand for nuclear non-proliferation.

That's where point two comes in. If Iran develops nuclear arms, Friedman argues, it's only a matter of time before the other Arab states get them as well. As if it's that easy, particularly now that Pakistan's leading nuclear scientist no longer selling its arms technology. Friedman neglects to mention the elephant in the living room - the one nation in the Middle East with nuclear weapons technology - or the complicity of the U.S. in helping it become a nuclear power with some of the most advanced nuclear weapons in the world. But no... it couldn't be that Iran, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would want nuclear weapons because Israel has them. I'm sure that doesn't even occur to them - it's all about keeping up with Iran.

The point again isn't whether or not we trust Israel with nuclear weapons more than we would trust any other Middle Eastern nation with them. We obviously, and quite reasonably, do. But if we are going to pretend that a non-nuclear Middle East is necessary to maintain peace for that region and for the world, and if we're going to acknowledge that nations will attempt to develop nuclear arms if a regional adversary already possesses nuclear arms, we can't ignore Israel. Just as you can't be "a little bit pregnant", you can't be "a little bit for non-proliferation". We either have proliferation or we don't. Friedman's implicit defense to why it's okay for Israel, Pakistan and India to possess nukes, but not North Korea or Iran, seems to be "that's different". And you know what? There are very real facts which make it different, and make their possession of nuclear arms less of a present or probable future threat, but it's still proliferation.

Friedman also proposes a solution... for Iran and North Korea.
Unless China and Russia get their act together and understand that the post-post-cold-war world is a much bigger threat to their prosperity than a post-cold-war world in which U.S. power is pre-eminent. You read me right — the post-cold-war world can be preserved only if Russia and China get over their ambivalence about U.S. power and if the Bush team gets over its ambivalence about Iran and North Korea.

How so? The U.S. is sanctioned out when it comes to Iran and North Korea. We don’t have any more unilateral sanctions with which to pressure either regime to halt its nuclear adventure. The only countries that could have an impact on North Korea and Iran are China and Russia.
Unfortunately, Mr. Friedman is not able to articulate a plan to save Iraq.

In Mr. Friedman's "flat" world, it would appear that he believes national interests are also "flat" - that is, he seems to believe that all nations fear equally the prospect of a nuclear armed North Korea, and that all nations have an equal interest in preventing North Korea and Iran from gaining nuclear weapons technology. He may be pretty close to correct with regard to North Korea, but I'm not so sure about Iran. Also, while Mr. Friedman depicts Europe as spineless for not already joining the U.S. in its sanctions against Iran, exactly what is he proposing? At one moment he's lamenting that disruptions in the world's oil supply are bringing an end to the post-cold war era. In the next he seems to be proposing an embargo against Iranian oil. Or perhaps he has a clever (yet secret) plan to have the world continue to buy Iranian oil, yet somehow preventing Iran from spending its cash.

Let's give Friedman his wish - we'll pretend that diplomacy and national interests are now flat, and that Russia and China see nuclear-armed Iran and North Korea in the same light as does the United States. Mr. Friedman uses the term "sanctions" as if it represents a magic bullet - but how often do they actually work? And what sanctions could conceivably work against a nation like North Korea?

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