- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2002

The course of the U.S. diplomatic offensive against Iraq in the U.N. Security Council and elsewhere has concentrated on preventing the emergence of a threat armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that may not be contained or deterred. While pre-emption remains a critical element of that strategy, less publicized has been a willingness to emphasize the carrot as well as the stick, to consider the use of incentives as well as deterrence to avoid the emergence of WMD-armed threats.
Anyone looking at the U.S. diplomatic activity in recent weeks saw the continued emphasis on working with allies, with international organizations, and of the importance of multilateral approaches to solving shared problems. What is implicitly questioned by the conduct of the Bush administration is rather the value of the status quo in U.S. strategy. The carrot (as opposed to the stick) is not the loser under the Bush administration. Rather, it is the concept that US policy should support the status quo.
The way the United States waged and eventually won the Cold War through a strategy of containment depended heavily on the status quo. The status quo was key to containment. As long as nuclear deterrence and NATO held the line, Moscow could not use its military force to change a status quo that, in the end, undercut them. The status quo of the Cold War enabled the strengths of the West free economies, and human rights while limiting those of its Soviet opponents.
The status quo like many of the tools used to win the Cold War has limited applicability to a number of more recent problems. The Bush administration's different policies towards Iraq and North Korea can perhaps be best explained by different likely outcomes. There will likely not be a North Korea in a generation. Keeping a status quo relationship by deterring the use of force by a potentially desperate future North Korean leadership and preventing such a leadership from having a nuclear capability points U.S. policies towards maintaining peace until North Korea goes out of business. That the United States has strong and sophisticated regional allies Japan and the Republic of Korea that share its goals and have their own ideas of how peace also helps.
Few project Iraq's regime will fold if we maintain today's status quo. A future Iraq with the sanctions largely removed would be able to earn enough money to gain covert access even to those technologies that will remain off limits. The lack of regional allies working to create a "soft landing" for Iraq is also one reason why, if the United States does not adopt a policy to change the status quo in its relation with Iraq, it will be looking at an aggressive threat with the demonstrated willingness and ability to invade neighbors and use weapons of mass destruction. The status quo today is unpleasant: in the future it is likely to be dangerous.
The Bush administration's strained relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can also be seen as resulting from this changed view of the status quo in U.S. strategy. Saudi Arabia is a place where the status quo is exalted and all change is suspect. It sees nothing to its benefit in U.S. policies that would cast a hard eye on whether maintenance of the status quo is really to its benefit as well.
Much of the criticism of current U.S. policies is reactionary on the subject of the status quo. There are potential costs in potentially turning away from a status quo where this has benefited the United States. Change in the status quo also creates additional chance for getting things wrong. Examining the wisdom of maintaining the security status quo on a case-by-case basis rather than accepting its general desirability has the potential to increase the number of decisions that can go wrong by what seems an order of magnitude. In the Cold War where mistakes could lead to the use of nuclear weapons this was a critical reason to embrace the status quo, just as today it suggests why preventing the emergence of nuclear-armed threats is critical. However, with the post-Cold War era now generally recognized to be over, the elements of national security policy including commitment to the status quo need re-examination.

David C. Isby is a Washington-based defense and foreign policy consultant.


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