Memo to the winners: No easy fixes for Iraq, Iran, N. Korea

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By Sol Sanders

Sol W. Sanders

Friday, November 10, 2006

It‘s always tempting to believe extremely complex problems could be solved with sufficient resolve and bold action. Alexander the Great — ironically a traditional hero of Islam [the name Iskander abounds] as well as in the Graeco-Roman West — mythologically accomplished just that. When confronted with prophecy whoever untied a difficult knot would rule Asia, Alexander simply took out his sword and slashed it, going on to victory after victory to establish the greatest empire the world had ever known. In legend the brave and the beautiful, armed with Danton's “toujours d'audace” — always daring — go on to victory. But in the real world, it is well to remember Alexander’s empire lasted only his short lifetime.

The critics who trashed President Bush’s Iraq political slogan “stay the course” to emerge with a closely contested electoral victory are tempted to seek Gordian Knot solutions in Iraq, North Korea, and even Iran. There must be some magic, they would hope, which can produce an easier solution against a fanatical enemy and chaos in Iraq, end the hemorrhaging of blood and treasure the U.S. is paying for a war, they say, Bush chose to wage. With North Korea, if Washington would only meet the adversary, face to face, many say, the Pyongyang regime could be persuaded to remake itself. Iran, a powerful source of Mideast chaos, could be weaned away from its search for weapons of mass destruction, if only Washington more enthusiastically practiced diplomacy..

And although only a couple of generations away from World War II slaughter during which the U.S. faced fanatical enemies, a good part of the American polity has persuaded itself more reasoning with opponents would solve the issues. Nazi fanaticism facing annihilation all along the Eastern front or Japanese kamikaze have faded into a misremembered past of Allied triumphs minus gross strategic and tactical errors which cost tens of thousands of lives.

None of this is an argument for not reappraising strategy and tactics in the three immediate foreign policy crises facing Washington. But it is an argument for not seeking to slash the Gordian Knot. An example: “Vietnam” is so often conjured up to describe where Iraq stands today — as it was at the President’s post-election press conference. Historical analogies are always dangerous — not least as a result of faulty conventional wisdom. Still, some of us are just now remembering an anniversary of a turning points in that engagement, overthrow and murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem on November 2, 1963. I remember all too well one argument made for such action at the time: “it” can’t get any worse. But “it” did. And “it”always can – and often does.

Grasping at radical strategic and tactical options — cutting the Gordian Knot – can be as dangerous as repeating old mistakes. The proposal to divide Iraq is a prime example. Granted Anglo-French mapmakers drawing Mideast arbitrary borders after the Ottoman Empire collapse may have prefigured current problems in creating a stable, libertarian Iraq. But setting up new states based on ethnic and religious criteria – at this moment a source of much conflict — is to flirt with new catastrophes. The “ethnic cleansing” nightmare, alone, which would follow, would be an even greater catastrophe than the present bloodletting.

In North Korea, a regime which has shown no compunction at murdering millions of its own, is fighting for its life precisely by creating weapons of mass destruction to blackmail its opponents, not least its blood brothers in a vulnerable South Korea democracy. Kim Il Jong has turned his back on efforts to follow the Chinese model and morph into a dictatorship based on borrowing foreign technology, capital, and markets for fear of bringing on his demise. “Face” from forcing Washington’s bilateral confrontation instead of Washington’s attempt to mobilize the region, would do no more than give Pyongyang a temporary fillip. Ultimately that regime and its enemies would have to face its permanent built-in instability and even greater threat if it acquired new weapons beyond itsalready threatening missiles and perhaps rudimentary nuclear inventory.. Fuirthermore, as its buildup continues, fear of its aggression is bound to speed its neighbors on their way toward an always precarious armaments race, including perhaps, their own nuclear missiles.

In Tehran, U.S. strategists face an equally complex problem. The regime’s resources, namely oil, have been so misappropriated, it is fundamentally weak. Nevertheless oil income gives its leadership a powerful weapon to continue to defy the world community which fears its drive toward weapons of mass destruction. Those who know it best argue there is massive internal opposition to leaders who sound more like Hitler than any heard since 1945. But just as in Hitler’s Germany, we now know, such dissent was often stifled through the best intentions of London and Paris — and Washington. How to put those elements into play becomes a sophisticated game yet to be learned. But it is likely, here too, there will be no magic, no one fell swoop of the sword

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World and

Friday, November 10, 2006

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