One of the most astonishing recent events is the spectacle of Bill Richardson, formerly Bill Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations, literally mediating between the Bush administration and the North Koreans. Even weirder is how this anomalous piece of freelancing came about. The North Koreans had enjoyed a constructive relationship with Richardson, who was recently elected governor of New Mexico. They put out informal feelers, and Richardson got a green light from Colin Powell to proceed with back-channel talks.
Imagine the reaction of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the administration's other ultras. You can also imagine the right's hoots of derision if a Democratic president had to rely on a Republican governor spontaneously acting to save the president from the folly of his own policy. Richardson, please recall, was a leading player in an administration whose Korea policy Bush has sought to disavow and reverse. By carelessly including North Korea in a spurious "axis of evil" and then demonstrating what happens to other members of that axis, Bush practically invited North Korea to conclude that its only recourse was a policy of nuclear brinkmanship. [See Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, "Where Are the Hawks on North Korea?"] Bush's Korea policy has thus violated both the first commandment of foreign policy (let sleeping dogs lie) and the second (you have to pick your fights).
Now Bush is backpedaling furiously. Events in North Korea both mock his Iraq policy and demonstrate, counter to administration doctrine, that you can't really engage more than one crisis at a time. At least on the surface, Iraq is grudgingly cooperating with inspectors, who have found nothing. North Korea is defying the international community and boasting about its nuclear program. The administration, meanwhile, is twisting itself into a pretzel trying to explain why its Iraq policy should not be its Korea policy, and vice versa. Events also demonstrate the larger folly of the grandiose belief that America has the capacity or moral authority to make over the world in its own image.
A friend who is a U.S. businessman based in the Far East recently called our attention to a right-wing outfit called New American Century. On the organization's Web site (www.newamericancentury.org) is a manifesto dated June 3, 1997, that is absolutely chilling in its overreach. "We need to accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles," the manifesto concludes. Among the signers are Cheney and Rumsfeld. Suppose, said our friend, you substituted the word "Japan's" or "Russia's" for the word "America's." How would we feel if some other country were hell-bent on making the world over in its image, for its narrow national purposes? Our friend, who is not notably left wing, reports an upsurge of anti-American feelings from longtime allies, at a time when America's vulnerability to terrorist attacks should be engendering sympathy. He fears that the Bush foreign policy will both lead to greater risks and also make it harder for American business to pursue constructive partnerships.
The isolation of the Bush administration from friendly world opinion is underappreciated and underreported. At this writing, Bush is reportedly determined to make war sometime in late February, while Hans Blix and Kofi Annan are equally determined to continue the inspection process well into March. Meanwhile, with European voters increasingly opposed to the war, even Tony Blair's government in the United Kingdom is sending mixed signals about its prior close support of Bush's Iraq policy. The Germans and French are hardening their opposition, and the Turks, on Iraq's northern border, may well deny the United States use of their bases.
What next? Bush has already amassed some 150,000 troops in the Persian Gulf. Will he dare to make war without United Nations and allied support? Having set up the entire exercise as a test of American resolve, can he find some fig leaf to bring the troops home and declare that he has tamed Iraq and avoided war -- without sounding less like Teddy Roosevelt than Gilda Radner? ("Never mind.") Or, with the economy in free fall, can he keep the troops in a state of high alert and preserve the February war option for when he may really need it: in February 2004?
Last May, stunned by the sheer stupidity of Bush's axis-of-evil formulation, we ran a cover story by Harold Meyerson titled "Axis of Incompetence." If anything, that was an understatement. What we have now is a mix of arrogance and blunder, with stakes as high as anything during the worst crisis of the Cold War.