Bush’s War Rhetoric Sounds Hollow Abroad

The wife of the White House wordsmith who thought up “axis of evil” sent around a boastful e-mail to her friends and acquaintances, but the inadequacy of that trope–and the policy it represents–has already become so painfully plain that even our politest allies have taken unhappy notice.

With due respect to the speechwriter’s proud spouse, “axis of evil” sounds like the name of a heavy-metal band, not a description of the problems we confront in an unstable world. What her husband has achieved is advertising, not analysis.

And as is always true of political advertising, simplicity ruled and complexity vanished. The regimes of Iran, Iraq and North Korea are not necessarily the most evil governments on a planet that also encompasses China, Syria, Libya, Nigeria and Sudan. Obnoxious as they are, those governments have forged no pact of aggression against the rest of the world. (In case anyone has forgotten, Iran and Iraq were not so long ago embroiled in a protracted war that killed an estimated one million of their citizens.) Dangerous as any of them may be, they’re more dissimilar than alike in the threats they pose and the responses they require.

That is why the State of the Union address provoked skepticism and even a measure of contempt among our most reliable allies. While many foreign leaders hesitated to say openly what they thought of the bellicose Bush speech, a few spoke up. Among them was Chris Patten, the European Union commissioner in charge of international relations, who derided the American administration’s “absolutist and simplistic” approach in a Feb. 9 interview with The Guardian of London.

What particularly incensed Mr. Patten was the damage done by Mr. Bush to moderates in the Tehran government and the policy of “constructive engagement” pursued by European leaders there. He was equally troubled by Mr. Bush’s attitude toward North Korea, where difficult progress has been made over the past several years by European and South Korean diplomacy (and by the previous American administration).

“There is more to be said for trying to engage and to draw these societies into the international community than to cut them off,” said Mr. Patten, speaking of Iran and North Korea (but not Iraq). He went on to warn the United States against the “unilateralist overdrive” that has again become fashionable in the Republican White House. “However mighty you are, even if you’re the greatest superpower in the world, you cannot do it all on your own,” he said.

Incidentally, for those who may be unfamiliar with his distinguished career, Mr. Patten is not some soft-headed international social worker. He is a realist who strongly supported the U.S. military action in Afghanistan. (He also happens to be a former chairman of the British Conservative Party.) The revulsion he expressed is widespread among international leaders, whose cooperation is essential if the “war on terrorism” is ever to mean more than the overthrow of the Taliban.

As Mr. Patten pointed out, the axis-of-evil mindset shows little evidence of actual thought. Aside from the facile and false analogy to the fascist Axis defeated in the Second World War, the Bush speech offered nothing but vague resolve. What are the President’s intentions? Is he planning a three-front war or a three-way blockade? Will he seek to punish the Europeans when they seek trade and cooperation with Iran? Does he hope to intimidate the South Koreans from making further overtures to the North?

Mr. Bush and his advisers appear to have misunderstood the American military triumph in Afghanistan, which resulted from leadership in consultation with allies around the world rather than unilateral action. The idea that the United States can strike out at perceived adversaries without international support is not merely unconvincing but perilously foolish.

Yet the Bush speech probably was meant less for an international audience than for domestic consumption, in the most literal sense. It served to justify the President’s budget, which allocates a huge increase in arms spending, including weapons systems that almost nobody believes are worthwhile. There are reasons to increase spending on useful modernization projects and on better pay and benefits for officers, soldiers and sailors. But the indiscriminate excess of the Bush budget resembles robbery more than reform. Billions will go, for example, to defense subsidiaries of the Carlyle Group, a firm that formerly employed George W. Bush and currently employs his father.

Then there is missile defense, the $100 billion project that lacks a successful technology and a clear purpose. (In Republican administrations, there is always missile defense.) Exaggerating the threat from “rogue states” has been a gambit used by Mr. Bush to support this project from the moment he took office. Now he has amplified the rhetoric again, at considerable cost to our interests at home and abroad. How his divisive bluster will reduce the real threats to American security remains for him to explain.

Bush’s War Rhetoric Sounds Hollow Abroad