Select Page Bush’s Stumble: The So San Affair By WILLIAM SAFIRE


The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under its new chairman, Richard Lugar, should make its first order of business an inquiry into President Bush’s maladroit and shortsighted decision-making in the So San affair.

Our National Security Agency, to its credit, spotted the movement of 15 Scud missiles and 85 drums of chemicals from a factory in North Korea to its secret loading aboard the freighter So San, and tracked the unflagged ship around the world to the Arabian Sea.

The C.I.A. was unable to determine the customer of these offensive weapons, unreliable in military combat but useful in striking terror into cities. State and Defense, worried that the ultimate customer might be Iraq, enlisted the Spanish Navy in stopping and boarding the vessel.

Apparently nobody thought the crisis through enough to ask: What do we do when we find the missiles? What if they are destined for an ally in the war on Al Qaeda like Egypt or Yemen or Saudi Arabia? What’s our policy on the movement of terror weapons into a tinderbox?

Then came Saleh into our alley. The dictator of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh (pronounced sally), claimed the destructive cargo, for which I am told he had paid North Korea $41 million.

U.S. officials were thunderstruck. Had Saleh not solemnly assured us 18 months ago, when we purchased his support in the war on terror, that he would no longer buy Scuds from North Korea? His disputes with the Saudis and Eritreans were long since resolved; the only logical explanation was that he planned to re-sell the secret shipment at a whopping profit to a nation or group that did not wish us well.

The Yemeni insisted he had bought the missiles years before he made his promise to us and just never got around to telling us about it. Nobody believed that, but Saleh lets us kill Al Qaeda leaders on his territory, and our knowledge of this shipment means he won’t be able to re-sell it easily.

So President Bush decided to sacrifice the principle of the interdiction of terror weaponry entering a war zone on the altar of practicality. Instead of suggesting a fair compromise — “We’ll reimburse you for your $41 million purchase, and we’ll impound the cargo” — he chose to appease an unreliable ally and turned the 15 missiles, with the unidentified chemicals, over to the man who had made the U.S. look foolish.

Because the news of our turnover broke before we had alerted Madrid, we humiliated a real ally, Spain, which — at our request — had put its sailors’ lives at risk by firing across the bow of a hostile vessel and boarding it. Spain has been a stalwart European supporter against Saddam, and is almost alone with us in urging Turkey’s admission to the European Union. Our So San signal to eight other U.S. allies patrolling waters against Al Qaeda in the region: Go out on a limb for America, then watch us saw the limb off behind you.

Meanwhile, the interdiction of this unflagged ship on the high seas was seized upon as an insult by the North Koreans. Pyongyang trumpeted plans to start up plutonium production, which could be seen as a provocative use of Saleh’s fungible $41 million.

The Bush administration’s embarrassment at this irate reaction to its high-seas flip-flop was heightened by former President Bill Clinton. He struck a fierce pose in Rotterdam: “We actually drew up plans to attack North Korea and destroy their reactors,” the retroactive hawk told a security forum, “and we told them we would attack unless they ended their nuclear program.” (Talk about secrecy: Who knew, in 1994, that those cowboys in the Clinton White House were threatening preventive war?)

The So San affair, still shrouded in diplomatic secrecy, does not show the vaunted Bush national security team at its best. With plenty of time provided by satellite intelligence, Bush did not formulate plans to deal with operational contingencies; humiliated by a Yemeni double-crosser, the president had the White House spokesman retreat into pettifoggery to explain away a policy flinch on the spread of terror’s weaponry.

Yes, we need unstable Yemen’s help at the moment. But President Bush is duty bound to drive home the message to our least savory “partners” that they need America more.