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?
It need not happen, for the most basic of reasons. Neither Iran nor North Korea could survive all-out war with the United States, and neither has crossed any red line to start such a war.
What do these nations want, and can America accommodate them, without imperiling our security or accepting an intolerable loss of strategic credibility?
What North Korea wants is what President Nixon gave Mao Zedong in the 1970s. Recognition, security guarantees, aid, admission into the international community and an end to the U.S. policy of regime change.
What does America want from North Korea? No more atomic tests, the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors into all of North Korea's nuclear facilities and no export of nuclear materials to hostile states or non-state actors that could use nuclear devices as instruments of terror, mass murder or nuclear blackmail.
The six-party talks have failed. North Korea has rejected U.S. offers and resisted U.S. demands, and South Korea and China have balked at using their leverage to back us up. If Beijing and Seoul wish to play a separate hand with Pyongyang, we should play one, too.
We should engage in direct negotiations with the North, warning them that any export of a nuclear device to a hostile regime risks an attack by the United States and any nuclear weapon used against Americans, anywhere, traceable to North Korea will bring certain and massive nuclear retaliation.
However, in return for iron-clad assurances they have opened up all nuclear programs to inspection and given up further development of nuclear weapons, we should offer the North Koreans diplomatic ties, economic aid and a security pact sealed with a U.S. withdrawal of forces from the Korean peninsula.
Great though its crimes, Kim's regime will never equal in evil those of Josef Stalin or Mao, both of whom had nuclear arsenals greater than Kim can ever achieve -- and America never went to war with either.
Meanwhile, put the bellicose bluster on the shelf. It has done less than nothing to advance America's security.