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Diplomacy on the Asian front

Published Aug. 31, 2005

France has promised to veto the U.S.-British-Spanish resolution to end Saddam Hussein's manipulation of the United Nations. Two other veto-bearing members of the Security Council, Russia and China, are expected to join in protecting Iraq from being forced to disarm.

President Bush has made it clear he will call for the vote that will expose the council as unwilling to protect the world from blackmail by terrorist states with ultimate weapons.

This means that the United Nations, as now constituted, may continue humanitarian activity but need no longer function as the umbrella under which strong nations restrain aggression.

It has failed dismally before. Because Russia had the veto to protect Serbia's dictator, the United States had to turn to NATO to act in the United Nation's stead against aggression in Bosnia and Kosovo, interceding after tens of thousands of lives had been lost. A half-century before, only the temporary absence of the Soviet delegate enabled the United States to fly the U.N. flag in stopping North Korea's invasion of the South.

As the Security Council exhibits its irrelevance again, the United States and its many allies will step in to fill the void. These Allied Nations will assume the burden of replacing Hussein and removing his arsenal of terror.

But what of the threat of terror opening a second front in Asia? True to form, the United Nations is frozen. Russia and China will do nothing to contain the nuclear threat from their neighbor, North Korea. France and Germany look away, urging the United States to buy off the extortionists unilaterally.

The communist regime in Pyongyang is revving up its reactors to produce plutonium and is ominously testing its medium-range missiles. With malice aforethought, it tried to force down our unarmed reconnaissance aircraft so as to take its crew hostage.

How to respond? With the United Nations paralyzed as usual, we see a complacent China, a mischievous Russia, an appeasing South Korea _ as well as accommodators in the United States _ demanding that the United States submit to another round of blackmail.

A month ago, I characterized our 37,000 troops stationed near the border of North Korea as a "reverse deterrent." If we were forced to bomb the facilities producing nuclear weapons for sale to terrorists, one-third of these U.S. troops within range of 11,000 communist artillery pieces would be the first casualties of a North Korean attack. With so many Americans as the North's human shields, Pyongyang's blackmailers are emboldened.

South Korea's leaders have gained popularity by vilifying Americans stationed along the demilitarized zone and demanding that the United States accede to the North's demands. Seoul's press and public have wanted to jail U.S. soldiers who get into traffic accidents.

Recently, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld expressed an interest in redeploying endangered Americans southward, or to other bases. At the same time, he ordered 20 long-range bombers to our base in Guam.

South Korea's new prime minister got the message. "The role of U.S. troops as a tripwire," the worried official told our ambassador, "must be maintained." Previously anti-American politicians are suddenly encouraging pro-American demonstrations.

Too late. America's strategic interest in this post-Security Council era is to let the strong South defend its territory while we make clear to weapons traders in the North that their illicit nuclear production is vulnerable to air attack from a nation soon to show its disarmament bona fides in Baghdad.

That readiness will bring about what diplomatists call "a fruitful, regional, multilateral negotiation." No war needed. No Security Council obfuscation necessary. Allies like Australia, Japan and the Philippines, neutrals like South Korea and Indonesia, and non-allies like China and Russia will find it in their national interest to enlist North Korea and the United States in talks to react to the starving and to starve the reactors.

Leagues of nations too ponderous to act need realignment into more agile, responsive coalitions. We can thank the Franco-German power grab for precipitating the diplomatic crisis that could usher in a post-Security Council era.

William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service