After sailing past Congress and running the pundit gauntlet without major contest, the Bush doctrine of preemption looked Baghdad-bound. But then an unlikely detractor rose in protest. It wasn’t some wizened statesmen or history-steeped academic, but a leper in the world community—the player least suited to argue but best positioned to show why the emperor’s war plan has no clothes.

Enter North Korea: hermitic, unpredictable, and apparently bookended by a pair of nuclear weapons. The regime that drops passenger jets from the air, assassinated half the South Korean Cabinet, kidnaps its Japanese neighbors, and sells ballistic missiles to Syria, Libya, and Iran makes Saddam Hussein look like an amateur. Line up his 20 Scuds against Kim Jong Il’s uranium, his sanction-starved army against a million North Korean Spartans. Add the danger Pyongyang poses to the 37,000 American troops stationed at the border and its proximity to every U.S. installation in Asia, and only Mr. Bush could explain why Iraq is the greater threat.

Only he couldn’t. After no conclusive evidence linked Saddam to 9/11, we were told that potential danger necessitated preemptive action. The administration’s entire justification gamed on possibility, not proof—rationale akin to carrying an umbrella on a cloudy day but not a stormy one. This illogic exposed, the president was left sputtering that Baghdad is “unique.”

Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz suggested that “oil and Israel” rather than fear of terrorism or a nascent nuclear program motivated the U.S. battle plan. Bush could not afford equal candor, but within days of the North Korean revelation, he dropped regime change from the Iraq agenda and signaled that Saddam might be able to self-medicate. “If he were to meet all the conditions of the United Nations, the conditions that I’ve described very clearly,” President Bush announced, “that in itself would signal that the regime has changed.” Colin Powell claimed, “Regime change came from the previous administration.” “The goal here is to disarm Saddam Hussein… to test his willingness to cooperate,” said a newly conciliatory Condoleezza Rice.

So Iraq wins a temporary stay. But what of North Korea’s nuclear confession? First comes the frightening possibility that we scheduled this showdown. An unnamed U.S. official told the Washington Post, “the North Koreans decided to go ahead with the [nuclear] program after President Bush identified the country as a member of an international axis of evil.” Compound that ineptitude with a grave sin of omission: The administration has known since last summer that Pyongyang had defied the 1994 weapons accord and said nothing lest the news sidetrack its war. Thus the White House exaggerated the Iraq threat to serve its political ends while ignoring the North Korean certainty to suit its empty philosophy.

But more alarming than accelerating proliferation or withholding information is the object lesson we’ve now broadcast to despots across the world. Think of developing weapons like ours, and we’ll send in marines. Do it, and we’ll fly in diplomats and increase your foreign aid. What better incentive to buy nuclear life insurance?

Predictably, the neocon answer is wider war. As one weekly editorializes, “The lasting solution to the threat they pose is a change of regime in both places.” But their scenario guarantees but one lasting feature—war ad infinitum.

North Korea must be contained. So too Iraq. But neither is ours to colonize, and their juxtaposition reveals the duplicity of the Bush doctrine. Kim yields Saddam no edge on tyranny, establishing his bona fides by importing an Italian chef while a tenth of his population starved. He pockets $1 billion in annual arms sales and has diverted far more in foreign aid. Yet we seek a “peaceful resolution.” Because the Great Leader does not perch atop the world’s second-largest oil reserve? Because he never embarrassed a presidential parent? In part, but what distinguishes Iraq from North Korea—other than the absence of nuclear weapons—reveals the blighted core of preemptive war. If we invade Iraq, logic and justice notwithstanding, it will be, quite simply, because we can. Not because it sheltered al-Qaeda or threatened our cities or stocked nuclear weapons, but because the empire-builders sought an easy mark, and in the absence of principle settled for excuse. —The Editors