On last week's McLaughlin Group, Time reporter Jay Carney made a startling revelation about the construction of the President's "axis of evil." "There was a big debate in the White House," he said. "Iraq was the only nation named at first in the speech. They put in Iran and North Korea primarily because they felt that if Bush only named and singled out Iraq, it would raise expectations of immediate military action."
Thus we have war by wordsmiths. How handy for the President's speechwriters to find two nearby regimes to round out that triumvirate of terror. One problem: the neat trio qualifies for that old Sesame Street game, "One of these things is not like the others." Or more precisely, none of these things is at all like the others. Their only common denominator is that so far not one is linked to 9/11.
Almost immediately after the attacks, Iraq was caught in the neo-con crosshairs. "End Iraq!" exhorted National Review. "Follow through," Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol urged the President. "Take out the most threatening terrorist state in the world." Columnists William Safire, Charles Krauthammer, George Will and Michael Kelly took up the battle cry as former CIA Director James Woolsey was dispatched, with the blessing of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, to forge the crucial link. But he didn't find the evidence he promised to seek "under every rock." Saddam couldn't be tied to 9/11 or to anthrax, the War Party's fall-back position. Yet the drumbeat continued, ever more urgent.
Then came the State of the Union. Absent obvious provocation, the White House wasn't prepared to declare war on Iraq - or to turn a deaf ear to the entreaties of Kristol & Co. So it paradoxically blunted the blow by drawing an axis rather than an arrow. The result was logically untenable, constitutionally indefensible, and strategically nonsensical.
"North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens," the President alleged. All true. Yet where does this tie in to the war on terror? We don't oppose nuclear proliferation on absolute terms and don't topple regimes - the Chinese comes to mind - simply because they mistreat their own. Moreover, without congressional consent, the President is constitutionally barred from marching on Pyongyang. He rightly assumed support for avenging 9/11, but North Korea is no more guilty of oppression or proliferation now than it was before the attacks. Thus, wrapping it in with the terrorists is a logical leap akin to, in the words of Michael Kinsley, "saying that you want to stop child molesters from robbing banks."
Likewise Iran - fingered for both nuclear proliferation and "repress[ing] the Iranian people's hope for freedom." Since September, we have gone from focused retribution to eradication of terrorism writ large to war on "evil" regimes generally - so judged not because they sponsor murderous hijackers but because they don't share our political standards and build the kind of weapons we've had for half a century.
It should be said that the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea or Iran isn't pleasant and that dealing with that threat would require extraordinary diplomatic dexterity. It should also be said that there is no more illogical time to confront - or provoke it -- than when we're knee-deep in a war against an enemy with cells scattered across the globe.
Taking down Saddam is not the simple dispensation of "unfinished business" as the neo-cons claim, but a complicated, resource-consuming operation. Add simultaneous conflict with the axis' other members, consequent upheaval across the Middle East, and, lest we forget, that original mission against terrorism.
The result would be an international imbroglio the American people are unprepared to support, the President is unauthorized to conduct, and no one -- except maybe a speechwriter -- could possibly call sound strategy.
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