Between Sept. 11, 2001, and his State of the Union Address in 2002, George W. Bush had America in the palm of his hand.
But in that speech, Bush blew it. Singling out Iran, Iraq and North Korea as state sponsors of terror seeking weapons of mass destruction, Bush yoked them together in an "axis of evil" and issued this ultimatum: "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."
Neoconservatives celebrated this bellicosity as neo-Churchillian. Yet all it accomplished was to fracture the U.S. and foreign coalitions that had united behind Bush. As some of us wrote at the time, to call Iran and Iraq, mortal enemies in the eight-year war of the '80s that took a million lives, an "axis" was absurd.
Bush's speech was a blunder of the first magnitude. First, he had no authority to attack any of those nations, as Congress had not authorized war. Second, he had neither the plans nor forces in place to do so. Yet he had put all three on notice this was what he had in mind.
When the United States invaded Iraq, North Korea and Iran got the message. Both accelerated their nuclear programs.
By issuing public ultimatums, Bush left these regimes no way out. Even tiny Serbia felt its national honor required it to fight rather than submit to a U.S. ultimatum to let NATO march through the country to occupy Kosovo.
Now Kim Jong-Il, though his July 4 test of the Taepodong-2 missile seems to have Roman-candled and his plutonium bomb may have misfired, has openly defied the Bush Doctrine. Arguably the world's worst regime has acquired the world's worst weapon.
Bush's response? He went to the United Nations to plead for sanctions.
Will the sanctions work? Why should they? As columnist Tony Blankley has argued, this is a regime that, to ensure its isolation and ideological purity, allowed millions of its people to starve to death. The cruelties the Hermit Kingdom has imposed upon its own to guarantee that America will not be tempted to attack are astounding. This is not a crowd that will give up its atom bomb for BMWs.
Because of the bluster-and-bluff of President Bush, the United States is today eyeball-to-eyeball with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs, and neither of these regimes appears ready to blink.
Are we headed down the road again, as we were in the Balkans and Iraq, toward wars that will be even bigger and bloodier?