– Jaunary 25, 2002
“Upon what meat has this our Caesar fed that he has grown so great?”
The line from “Julius Caesar” came to mind as I watched the president, triumphant in the Afghan war, thunderously threaten three nations with war, should they seek to acquire weapons the United States has had in its arsenal for more than half a century.
In the Kennedyesque rhetoric of the State of the Union address, the president marched us closer to war than any since JFK threatened a “full retaliatory response” on the Soviet Union in the missile crisis of ’62. By describing Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the “axis of evil,” Bush hearkened back to Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric and equated these countries with the Axis powers we crushed in World War II: imperial Japan, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
Their fate will be your fate, the president warned.
Casting aside TR’s admonition to “speak softly, but carry a big stick,” Bush issued his ultimatum loudly and in the clear: “Time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. 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.”
Will not permit? This is a threat of war. Yet, Harry Truman did not threaten war to prevent Stalin from building atomic weapons when Russia tested a bomb in 1949. LBJ did not threaten war on China after Mao tested a nuclear weapon in 1964. While it is U.S. policy to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and probably North Korea have already acquired them, with no retribution from the United States.
Let me say it bluntly: Bush erred in putting his own and U.S. credibility on the line that we will launch a preventive war rather than permit any of them to acquire a weapon of mass destruction.
First, he put these regimes on notice that they may be attacked, and soon (“time is not on our side”) â€“ giving them the most powerful of incentives to build a nuclear weapon, i.e., deterrence and survival. Second, he issued a threat he lacks the authority to carry out. For Congress has not empowered Bush to launch wars on nations that have not attacked us. Third, what do we do if North Korea explodes a nuclear device? If we attack Pyongyang’s nuclear sites, we could face atomic retaliation on our 38,000 troops in South Korea or a murderous barrage from thousands of artillery pieces on the DMZ.
Were the South Koreans consulted before Bush threatened war on their heavily armed northern brethren, who have a million troops massed within 50 miles of their capital city?
Even if Bush has concluded that war on one or more of the three regimes is essential to our security, why declare, urbi et orbi, that America will launch it, and probably soon?
How can a nation back down, after being publicly threatened? Even Serbia chose to resist rather than submit to an ultimatum from Madeleine Albright. And Iran, Iraq and North Korea are far better armed than the Serbs.
In straining to reach Churchillian heights in their rhetoric, the president’s speechwriters took him over the top. Why engage in this Caesarism, this hubristic triumphalism? Has Bush been carried away by his triumphs and his polls? What happened to the Bush’s pre-election promise of humility walking hand-in-hand with American power?
Thus far, America’s war on terror has been fought in a way to impress all but the inveterate America-bashers. The president set a goal â€“ ousting a Taliban regime that refused to turn over the terrorists who had slaughtered our people â€“ and achieved it. He has the entire nation behind his battle to eradicate al-Qaida.
Why, then, when he does not have the troops in place to attack Iraq, or to invade Iran or North Korea, threaten them? What is the benefit of a public threat that could not have been achieved with a private warning from Secretary Rumsfeld or Gen. Powell?
Why ratchet up the rhetoric, months before we can act? Why set down a marker that can be thrown back in the president’s face, if one of these nations detonates a weapon of mass destruction, and he does not go to war?
In the wake of our Cold War victory and Gulf War triumph, the president’s father began to rhapsodize about creating a “New World Order.” It proved a mistake. And to threaten nations, even regimes like Baghdad, Pyongyang and Tehran, with war, when U.S. spending on national defense is but half of what it was when Bush Sr. launched Desert Storm is also a mistake. And a major one.