Foreign Policy & National Security

Webb Calls North Korea Greater Threat To U.S. Security Than Iraq

January 6, 2003
by Malina Brown, Inside the Navy

The current nuclear standoff with North Korea should make the Bush administration question whether it is preparing to fight the right war or if it can afford to go to war with Iraq at all, according to former Navy

Secretary James Webb. While not advocating a war with North Korea, Webb suggested the situation in eastern Asia should give the administration good reason to reevaluate its plans to attack Iraq, where inspectors have still failed to find evidence of nuclear weapons.

“I am not against fighting when fighting is necessary,” Webb told Inside the Navy during a sit-down interview last month. “What I am for is making sure you are fighting the right war.”

Webb served in the Reagan administration as Navy secretary starting in 1987. He resigned from that position the following year after refusing to agree to the reduction of the Navy’s force structure during congressionally mandated budget cuts.

As a Marine Corps rifle platoon and company commander during the Vietnam War, Webb earned numerous medals for his service. He has previously spoken out against a war with Iraq in speeches and newspaper editorials.

“I think North Korea is far more dangerous than Iraq because of several reasons,” Webb said. “One is, their leader truly is nuts. Saddam Hussein is shrewd. [North Korean President] Kim Jong Il is crazy . . . he’s totally unpredictable.

“Second of all, North Korea is . . . within a stones throw of 37,000 American troops who are in fixed defensive positions. So our forces are truly at risk if something goes haywire.

“Thirdly, [Kim] has nukes,” Webb said, referring to CIA estimates that North Korea already has two nuclear weapons and could potentially build five or six more in the next six months.

In October, North Korea announced it had reactivated its nuclear program, which had been frozen under a 1994 non-proliferation deal with the United States. North Korea has since removed monitoring seals and cameras from its nuclear facilities and expelled U.N. inspectors who monitored those facilities.

“The situation in North Korea is, in my view, more dangerous than the situation in Iraq. That does not mean we need to be going to war with North Korea right now. It just calls into question why we are doing this in Iraq.”

Although President Bush has designated North Korea as part of the “axis of evil,” he has taken pains in recent weeks to draw a distinction between the standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program — which he says could be resolved through diplomatic means — and the growing confrontation with Iraq.

The administration says Bush has made no decision on whether to attack Iraq, which was ordered by the U.N. Security Council in November to disarm or face serious consequences. But last week the president warned Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that his “day of reckoning is coming,’ saying there was little evidence Iraq would disarm peacefully.

At minimum, the former Navy secretary called on the administration to make its objectives clear to the public before it enters into a military conflict with Iraq. “What are we trying to do in Iraq? Does anybody know?” he asked.

“We have to narrowly define our goals,” he emphasized. “We do not have to go to war with Iraq except under, in my view, under some extreme conditions.”

Further, Webb told ITN, “If we do go to war with Iraq, we should have a clear exit strategy. And without a clear exit strategy, we run the risk of basically falling into a strategic mousetrap” and being bogged down in the region for many years to come. Keeping troops in Iraq in the long term could be detrimental to U.S. military efforts worldwide, said Webb, pointing to the war on terrorism and “hot spots” such as North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan that could require U.S. attention.

“If you dump a huge percentage of your resources into the Iraqi situation, you lose your capability of being maneuverable around the world to deal with other situations. And I am certainly not alone in saying that,” he said.

“There are a lot of people who have a lot of combat experience and who have spent their lives thinking about military strategies and that sort of thing, who we feel the same way that I do.”

However, Webb suggested that those who share his reservations about attacking Iraq are silenced by the present administration.

“The problem is that the people that want this war with Iraq have tried to create an inference that if you don’t support the war against Iraq, you are anti-war,” he told ITN. “It’s dishonest on their part, and they know it.
They are trying to stifle a debate.”

Former Navy Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll expressed similar views during an interview with ITN last month on the war in Iraq, adding that those in active service are prevented from raising objections out of fear of losing
their jobs while civilian protesters are rejected as anti-American.

Carroll’s last assignment on active duty was in the Pentagon as assistant deputy chief of naval operations for plans, policy and operations, and in this capacity was engaged in naval planning for conventional and nuclear war until his retirement in 1980.

He told ITN that the administration, in tandem with the media, is suppressing debate by criticizing people who raise questions for their lack of patriotism. “There is nothing that justifies a rush to war that we are engaged in using the cover of a crisis of an axis of evil,” but citizens who question the rush to war are looked down upon as disloyal, leaving them effectively disenfranchised, said Carroll.

Carroll also foresees an attack on Iraq as inevitable, cynically noting that the administration would not back down from war even if U.N. weapons inspectors do not find evidence of nuclear, chemical or biological materials, because then Bush would be “a dead duck for spending billions to do all this.”

Equally critical of the United States’ march towards war, Webb condemned the nation’s prominent war hawks for thrusting troops into battle even though many of them lack personal military experience.

“You go all the way back to the Vietnam War, when an unfair draft excused the elites of this age group from military service and the implications of that since that point forward are that you have policy-makers, the people who are deciding where the military should be used, most of them have never served in the military, most of them have no friends or loved ones in the military, and as a result, they don’t have the emotional connection with military operations that was true before that time in the country,” he said.

“So we have created two-distinct classes of people here: The people who make policy and sort of deride military advice and the people who have to go out and implement that policy and fight and die,” said Webb. “That’s the greatest problem in America today and it’s manifest in the situation over Iraq.

“Go ask Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle . . . the people who have really been the advocates of this — go ask them what the sum total of their military service is or how many loved ones in their family are going to go to Iraq.” Webb mentioned the Pentagon’s top policy official, the deputy defense secretary and the chairman of the Defense Policy Board.

Webb accused such policy leaders of lacking a “human connection” to a potential war with Iraq.

In contrast, he pointed to Secretary of State Collin Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, and retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, who headed U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, as examples of leaders with extensive military experience who have expressed reservations about the war.

Powell has veered toward a more diplomatic approach to the situation in Iraq and shown reluctance about launching a unilateral attack. Zinni has vocally spoken against a war with Iraq, saying in a recent speech in Washington DC, that the Middle East peace process should be the nation’s first priority, with the situation in Iraq falling sixth or seventh on a list of main global concerns.

While Webb clarified that he was not suggesting that policy-makers required military experience to dispense good policy, he said the way prominent Americans view starting an elective war — a war launched when the United States is not under attack — might be altered had they personally felt the brunt of battle.

“Can you imagine what this debate would look like right now if 70 percent of the people in positions of power in government and the media had a son or daughter at risk?” Webb questioned. “That’s the way it should be in a democracy.”

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