Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Gene Lyons' New Column

Arkansas readers close your eyes.

Riding into town on his trusty golf cart, the Texas Ranger of the World allowed as how that bunch with the mustaches and black hats down at the Baghdad Saloon had best saddle up and clear out. Come sundown, Cowboy Dubya was fixin’ to come looking for evildoers.

Actually, Newsweek scribe Fineman’s bathetic hero-worship notwithstanding, it’s a cliché to mock President Junior’s drug store cowboy act. The role itself was already threadbare when Ronald Reagan played it. Besides, the average Clint Eastwood western is rich with nuance compared to the two-dimensional melodrama of Bush foreign policy. (In “Pale Rider,” the villain is a claim-jumping, strip-mining tycoon who’d be a GOP donor in 2003.) Melodramatic clashes between pure good and absolute evil are more apt to be found on the fantasy and science fiction shelf these days—films where the bad guys aren’t even human.

Which may be a clue about where Junior got his idea about how to deal with North Korea, the most dangerous member of his celebrated “axis of evil.” The White House can’t have imagined they were dealing with actual human beings. If so, they might have realized that U.S. policy toward that benighted land couldn’t have been better calculated to produce the crisis they have blundered into.

Some warned that Bush’s “axis of evil” metaphor was reductive and dangerous. Mostly they were shouted down by ideologues whose first response to the 9/11 catastrophe was to stifle dissent and promote orthodoxy. Defining your antagonists as evil may be politically advantageous and psychologically satisfying, but it can also make you stupid if it means blinding yourself to their point of view altogether.

One of Junior’s first acts as president was to publicly humiliate South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who visited Washington in March 2001 seeking an endorsement of his country’s “sunshine policy” of reconciliation with its communist neighbor. Instead, Bush sneeringly dismissed what he implied was a Clintonian fantasy—even though German reunification, following the implosion of an East German communist regime almost as dogmatic as North Korea’s, happened during his father’s presidency.

“One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty,” Orwell argued in 1941. “[A]s a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it.”

By all accounts, North Korea is a madhouse. Koreans north and south, however, feel themselves to be one people with a shared language, history and culture. On both sides of the DMZ, Bush’s disrespect was seen as a bitter insult, weakening our alliance with the democratic Republic of South Korea.

Next came the “axis of evil” speech, then Junior’s West Point address threatening “preemptive strikes.” Reading from a script, Bush declared that containment was “not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.”

The threat couldn’t have been clearer. According to Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War, Junior appeared to believe his own rhetoric: “’I loathe [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Il!’ Bush shouted, waving his finger in the air. ‘I've got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people ... It is visceral. Maybe it's my religion, maybe it's my—but I feel passionate about this.’”

Kim got the message. Exactly when North Korea began to experiment with enriched uranium weapons with Pakistan’s help isn’t clear. It was some time after 1998, giving Bush apologists a semi-plausible way to blame Bill Clinton. But it won’t wash. At worst, North Korea could make maybe two bombs some years hence by that method. The scary part is their re-starting a nuclear reactor shut down in 1994 and capable of making enough weapons-grade plutonium to start a production line within months.

Taking advantage of U.S. preoccupation with Iraq, the communists called Bush’s bluff. Unless he wants another Korean War, there’s not much he can do about it. So now the White House has taken to leaking word that North Korea’s inclusion in the “axis of evil” was merely speechwriter’s flourish, stuck in lest Junior appear to be threatening only Muslim states. If anything, that makes Bush look even more ridiculous.

“The lesson of North Korea for other Third World dictators,” Zbgniew Brzezinski told the Washington Post “is to go nuclear as rapidly as possible, and as secretly as possible, and then act crazy so as to deter us

They’ll call it something else, but the big-talking Texas Ranger of the World has little choice but to negotiate. The doctrine of preemption lasted, what, six months?

I like the last paragraph