Ideas have consequences, wrote conservative Richard Weaver. So do words, when uttered by the most powerful man on earth.
By threatening war against Iran, Iraq and North Korea in his now-famous "Axis of Evil" address, the president painted himself into a corner. Either Bush now goes to war against one of these regimes, or he will be humiliated and exposed as a bellicose bluff.
Let me say it again: Whoever fed Bush those lines, or did not argue against his delivering them, disserved the president. For that speech has blown our coalition against terror to smithereens.
Not a single NATO ally has endorsed Bush's war talk. The French and Germans are raking us. South Korea was stunned. No Arab ally save Kuwait stands with us. Iran's cooperation in the Afghan war has come to an end. And the president's united front at home is now split and wrangling over the wisdom of his war talk.
And what did the "axis of evil" phrase accomplish? Within hours of his speech, Bush began to back away, insisting that he was still ready for dialogue with North Korea. On Tuesday, Secretary Powell told the Congress, "With respect to Iran and with respect to North Korea, there is no plan to start a war with these nations."
That leaves Iraq, and it is now evident Saddam Hussein is Bush's primary target. As Powell told Congress: "With respect to Iraq ... regime change would be in the best interests of the region, the best interests of the Iraqi people. ... And we are looking at a variety of options that would bring that about."
To explore those options, Vice President Cheney has scheduled a March trip to Britain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey -- all of Iraq's neighbors, save Iran. But all this begs the question: Why Iraq?
When it comes to supporting terrorism, Iraq is far behind Syria and Libya, and not even in a league with Iran, which is believed to have been behind the Khobar Towers bombing, supports Hezbollah and shipped the boatload of rockets to the PLO. Iran and North Korea are far closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, and both have developed medium-range missiles. Meanwhile, Iraq relies on Scuds. Nor can Iraq compete in the export of nuclear and missile technology with China or North Korea.
Why, then, has Iraq emerged as the designated enemy? One reason: fear -- the fear that should a vengeful Saddam acquire an atom bomb, he will use it to blackmail the Gulf states or strike America. Rather than run the risk of a nuclear-armed Saddam, Washington wants to finish him, even if it means sending an army to Baghdad.
This is a grudge fight. Bush's men are determined to finish the job his father began: terminating Saddam. And the planned war has less to do with Sept. 11 than with the conviction of Bush's men that denying weapons of mass destruction to Iraq justifies preventive war.
But there are obstacles on Bush's road to war. First is the Constitution. Bush does not have the authority to launch a preventive war against Iraq. The Security Council has not authorized a second war on Iraq, and the congressional authorization for the war on terror covers only regimes that supported or harbored the terrorists who perpetrated the horrors of 9-11. And there is no evidence Iraq had anything to do with Sept. 11 or with Osama bin Laden.
Second, while neoconservatives may tout an invasion of Iraq as a cakewalk, the U.S. forces necessary to do the promenading are nowhere in sight. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers will be needed. And while Iraq is not as strong militarily as it was in August 1990, after the tens of thousands of air strikes of Desert Storm ravaged its war machine, neither is the United States.
The accuracy of our new weapons is awesome, but the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force are only half of what we had in 1991, when we had supporting units from Britain, France, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This time we have no allies, and the "Arab street," watching Al Jazeera's nightly pictures of Israelis crushing the intifada, are far more hostile -- if not hateful -- toward the United States.
With his "axis" speech, Bush told everyone in the saloon that one of three outlaws in town was headed for Boot Hill, and he strapped on his guns. Now, he must deliver the corpse to the coroner.
His problem is he has not been deputized, he has no posse, the town does not want any more gunplay, and the outlaws are still defiantly there. He has to take one of them down, or the Western become a comedy.
Thus do words seal off the exit ramps away from war.