Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2005 / 8 Adar I 5765

Paul Greenberg

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North Korea's nuke: What would FDR have said? | Is the world really supposed to be shocked — shocked! — that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, aka the world's crazy-aunt-in-the-attic, has formally announced that it has The Bomb?

Nothing could have been more predictable. Being neither democratic nor the people's, and certainly not a republic, Kim Jong Il's one big gulag has been working on its nuclear arsenal for years. And it's been aided and abetted by the apathy that Washington chose to adopt in place of an effective policy to deal with this growing danger. It was so much easier to pretend that North Korea could be trusted than to take decisive action — like blowing up its nuclear facilities before they were complete. The French and Germans might not have approved, or even the British. Kofi Annan might have thought less of us. (Imagine incurring the moral disapproval of the hero of Darfur, and before that Rwanda and Bosnia.)

The United Nations would surely have passed a resolution condemning such an attack on North Korea's peaceful little nuclear reprocessing plant. Even if many of its members might have breathed a secret sigh of relief. Much as the Reagan administration did when the Israelis took out Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor in 1981, even as it denounced the action publicly.

Confronted by a North Korea intent on becoming a nuclear power, the Clinton administration blinked — and pretended it hadn't. The deal it negotiated with Pyongyang soon developed more holes than a leaky nuclear reactor — and it's proved as dangerous.

Those were the Clinton Years, when a lot happened without anything really happening. Crises weren't met so much as postponed till they could come back bigger and worse, preferably on somebody else's watch.

The options for dealing with North Korea have grown narrower with every passing year. The six-nation talks — with Japan, Russia, Communist China, the United States, North and South Korea all taking part — were going to solve the problem. Well, North Korea has just walked out of those talks.

Instead, Pyongyang demands direct talks with Washington as a reward for breaking the commitment it made as a result of its last direct talks with Washington. Back then, it was going to drop its nuclear ambitions in exchange for Western aid. Now, in exchange for still more economic aid, the North Koreans seem eager to make new commitments they can proceed to break.

History, that great repository of wise counsel tragically ignored, offers us an example to follow at this juncture:

When another foreign crisis was in the making, another American president — Franklin D. Roosevelt — took to the stump. Speaking in Chicago, capital of the isolationist Midwest, he called on the world's democracies to take a united stand against the growing danger that faced them.

FDR proposed a response short of war: Isolate the nations that threatened freedom, he said. He likened tyranny to a plague, and called for quarantine: "When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread," he said, "the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease." And he urged the world to do the same to the fascist powers.

The world did not heed him. For that matter, neither did American public opinion. Franklin Roosevelt had seen too far, and spoken too soon. Even FDR was taken aback by the strong reaction his speech set off, and began backing away from it. At a crucial moment for the country and the world, moral clarity was lost and with it nerve. The growing threat would not be confronted till years later, when there was no other choice and the fascist powers were at the height of their military power.

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Who knows if the cataclysm that was the Second World War might have been avoided if FDR had been willing to risk his popularity and lead an alliance of the free that would have confronted the great evil of his time? As Ronald Reagan did when the threat was the Soviet Union and as George W. Bush is attempting to do now that the threat is a shadowy Islamo-fascism.

After September 11th, this president adopted a bold new forward strategy and, whatever happens with North Korea, this much is clear: Kim Jong-Il will not be exporting his nuclear know-how to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Or to Moammar Gadhafi's in Libya. Whatever troublesome possibilities the Bush Doctrine has raised, it has definitely eliminated a couple.

But FDR chose to hoard his political capital in the 1930s rather than use it. And the war came. It was the era of Neutrality Acts, and many Americans thought that, if the danger were ignored long enough, it would go away. Peace was to be secured by appeasing the enemy, not isolating it.

But some adversaries will not be appeased — they will break any promise, spurn any treaty. They cannot be bought off, only pressured, deterred, isolated — and if necessary fought.

Still it is being said that if we would just appease this troublemaker, he would cease threatening his neighbors and all will be well.

When will we ever learn?

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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