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Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2001 / 24 Shevat, 5762

Michael Kelly

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War on Bush's Watch -- ON Jan. 29, about midpoint through his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush gave modest (humble, he might say) notice that he intends to change the world.

Speaking of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the president said: "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." To respond to this threat with "indifference," said Bush, "would be catastrophic." And then he added: "And all nations should know America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation's security. . . . I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

What these words would seem to mean is that Bush intends to engage the United States in a war of considerable length, with large aims, rooted in a fundamentally new understanding of American policy. Bush's War of Sept. 11 may be compared, in type if not in magnitude, with the Cold War. In that half-century conflict, the United States understood that communist regimes under the control of Moscow or Beijing were inherently threatening to America and to the liberal, democratic, free-market world that America wished to lead. The Cold War was not a war against one regime or another; it was a war against a whole class of regimes -- importantly: regimes, not nations or peoples. And it was a war, ultimately, not against the actions of such regimes but against the very existence of them.

This is the import of Bush's statements, taken at face value. They are an announcement that the president has concluded that the United States, after Sept. 11, can no longer accept the existence of rogue regimes that are hostile to America (and hostile, as were communist regimes, not in tactics or politics but in fundamental values: they are "evil," hostile to freedom itself); that are actively seeking, with increasing success, weapons of mass destruction; and that support terrorist movements eager to inflict destruction on America. If necessary, the United States will act to destroy such regimes. By naming the three most offending regimes that fit this description, Bush intended to indicate deadly seriousness.

Foreign affairs sophisticates were quick to assure that Bush had merely been striking a pose. "What we heard in the 'Axis of Evil' speech was a bargaining chip," soothed a British correspondent, Martin Walker. "By appearing to threaten three targets, Bush can appear to make a reasonable compromise with his allies by conceding to settle for one."

The sophisticated response is, as is remarkably often the case, wrong. Bush meant what he said on Jan. 29. His speechwriters wrote the "axis of evil" line -- but he approved of it, and he still approves of it. In the aftermath of the speech, some senior administration officials backed away from the phrase; Bush was quick to express his displeasure at this, and to stop it. On Monday, speaking to troops at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida, Bush made a point of repeating and reinforcing the "axis of evil" concept: "Terrorist states and terrorist allies are an axis of evil, seeking weapons of mass destruction. But I've put them on notice."

George Bush's predecessor accepted a foreign policy modus vivendi that tolerated the existence of regimes and groups actively inimical to America on the grounds that they posed no vital danger. It was not so much a case of live and let live as live and let them kill a few of our Marines.

Bill Clinton met Saddam Hussein's refusal to verifiably destroy his weapons of mass destruction by accepting Hussein's expulsion from Iraq of U.N. weapons inspectors. He met murderous attacks by al Qaeda on two U.S. embassies in Africa and an American warship with the most token efforts at reprisal and capture. He shrugged at Iran's nuclear program and dealt with North Korea's nuclear and missile programs by agreeing to deals that remain uncompleted and unverified. In Clinton's last month in office, his secretary of defense, William Cohen, reported that "at least 25" nations had developed, or were trying to develop, weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems for such weapons.

The proliferation president left behind a vastly more dangerous world for America -- one in which the old modus vivendi could no longer be accepted. It is certainly possible that Bush, like Clinton, might have failed to grasp this new reality. But then there was Sept. 11, and Bush understood.

The most telling words in Bush's State of the Union speech were not "axis of evil." They were these: "This campaign may not be finished on our watch, yet it must be and it will be waged on our watch." Those are the words of a man who sees himself as a wartime president in a war of historic proportions, and they were not spoken for effect.

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Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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