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Jewish World Review Oct. 23, 2002 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Robert W. Tracinski

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The grand illusion | Somewhere, there is a warlike American administration obsessed with smashing an Axis of Evil, an administration itching to blow away any regime tainted by terrorism and willing to lash out pre-emptively and unilaterally, invading and occupying any country that resists.

That administration is not, alas, the one in the White House. It is an administration that exists, perversely, in the minds of those who regard such bold and far-sighted policies as evil.

The left condemns the Bush administration, in the words of a recent Los Angeles Times column, as a "barroom brawler who will take up fisticuffs over any provocation," as reckless unilateralists who show contempt for our allies and the United Nations, as bent on the conquest of Middle Eastern oil reserves and indifferent to the civilian casualties caused along the way.

But if any of this were true, the world would be quite different. If the administration really had contempt for the U.N., it could withdraw its support and let that organization complete its collapse into a Third World debating society. If Bush wanted to lash out at every threat in the world, America's near-$400 billion defense budget could provide the soldiers, tanks, airplanes and missiles to wage several small wars at a time, from Libya to North Korea (and most places in between). If America were trying to seize the world's oil reserves, we could have swept aside the Saudi sheiks long ago. If we were indifferent to the casualties of enemy civilians -- and the only alternative is to be indifferent to the deaths of our own soldiers and civilians -- then anti-war academics would have to give up tallying those casualties one-by-one.

But none of this is happening, because President Bush is in fact doing just about everything his critics demand. Is this administration "unilateralist"? No, they constantly give in to the demands of our putative allies. War with Iraq was taken off the agenda last spring to placate the Arab states, who put a higher priority on saving Yasser Arafat's regime. Now we are twiddling our thumbs for weeks while we wait for France and Russia (former world powers resentful of U.S. strength) and China (which views us as its No. 1 enemy) to endorse our threats against Iraq.

And consider the administration's response to the recent crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons. Faced with a defiant admission that North Korea has developed weapons in violation of its 1994 agreement with the U.S., Bush has responded by declaring that we seek a "peaceful solution," that we will resume diplomatic discussions, and that we intend to follow the lead of our allies in the region -- South Korean and Japanese leaders frightened into a policy of appeasement.

But doesn't the administration believe that Iraq, Iran and North Korea are linked in an Axis of Evil? Apparently, Bush has given in to the charge that this is a "simplistic" notion. The administration has now declared North Korea to be different from Iraq in some unspecified way; meanwhile, the Bush State Department has been busy making diplomatic overtures to Iran. Earlier this month, Bush declared Iraq to be "unique," and it is: it is the only member of the Axis of Evil that Bush seems willing to confront.

That the left would condemn the administration as warmongering and imperialist even as its foreign policy softens into appeasement, is not remarkable. The left still follows the lesson it learned in the 1960s, when it focused its protests on university administrators: aim your fiercest attacks at the target most likely to cave in.

Yet the supposedly hawkish right also accepts the view of the administration as standing tall. The disastrous consequence is that an independent, self-assertive approach to foreign policy will end up bearing the blame for the failures of the Bush team's actual policy.

The only strong element of Bush's foreign policy is its rhetoric. The administration has put forward a few powerful ideas: the "Bush Doctrine" of making war on state sponsors of terrorism, and the doctrine of pre-emption to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of dictators. But Bush's strong words are like the first snowflakes of winter: they melt on their first contact with solid reality.

The foreign policy in which an American administration is a self-confident actor, uninhibited by duplicitous allies and willing to take decisive action to eliminate any threat, is an illusion. But it is, at least, a grand illusion -- and a vision that our leaders ought to transform into reality.

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