It's a dangerous world

Posted: Feb 09, 2005 12:00 AM

President Bush's State of the Union Address last Wednesday included the most audacious presidential foreign policy utterances since President Kennedy's demand that the Soviet Union remove its atomic weapons from Cuba in 1963. The impact of President Bush's words may be at least as historically consequential as Kennedy's.

        This follows on his Inaugural Address, in which he put forward the principle that will undergird his foreign policy, to wit: Our security requires all tyrannies in the world to be converted into democracies, ultimately. In the days following that address, some of his senior aides and his father, the former president, tried to soften those words, suggesting there was nothing really new about them. After last Wednesday's SOU speech, it is safe to say those softening or backpeddling explanations are now nugatory.

        The SOU speech began to lay out the programmatic expression of the Inaugural Address's general propositions.

        To Syria, the president said: "We must confront regimes that continue to harbor terrorists and pursue weapons of mass murder. Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region, and we expect the Syrian government to end all support for terror and open the door to freedom." Notice the verbs he used: "must confront," "we expect," "to end."

        To Iran, he said: "Today, Iran remains the world's primary state sponsor of terror, pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve. The Iranian regime must give up its uranium enrichment program and any plutonium reprocessing, and end its support for terror. And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."

        There is only one word that describes each of those two statements: Ultimatum -- a final demand, the rejection of which will end negotiations and cause a resort to force or other action. The president has not left much to talk about, other than the technical procedures by which the uranium programs and terror support programs are to be dismantled.

        The only other thing missing from President Bush's statement is an express deadline by which his demands must be acceded to. But, given that the Iranians have not denied the existence of their nuclear programs, and given that the world can observe the terrorists activities of Syria and Iran, the implicit deadline for action must be measured in months, not years.

        It is very rare for the leader of a sovereign nation to give such detailed and unconditional instructions to another sovereign nation. If such demands are not met, the demanding country has two choices: take coercive action to effect the demands without the voluntary actions of the other country, or back down from the demands, and be seen by the world as a nation that makes idle threats.

        The case of Iran is made even more piquant by President Bush's express invocation to the Iranian people that America will stand with them if they stand for their own liberty. The Iranian regime can only read that statement as meaning that even if the Iranian government acceded to President Bush's demands on uranium and terror programs, America would support rebellion against the regime: a rebellion he encouraged last Wednesday night. After all, what else than rebellion can "standing for liberty" mean in a country in which ultimate power and authority reside in an un-elected theocratic oligarchy?

        But the president wasn't finished with his audacity. While not quite ultimata, Mr. Bush's words to Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- that they should lead by example the way to democracy in the Middle East -- certainly pressures, and perhaps begins to destabilize, our two strongest Muslim allies in the Middle East.

        President Bush's words to Syria and Iran are even tougher than Ronald Reagan's famous words to Gorbachev, which were, unlike President Bush's words, stated in the conditional mode: "If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate, Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

        President Bush's ultimata are justified, because no other plausible response to the mortal threat posed by Islamist and rogue state terrorism has yet been put forward. (We are in a vicious cycle: Syrian and Iranian-supported terrorists undermine Israeli/Palestinian peace efforts, which leaves that conflict burning, further encouraging radical Islamists to recruit ever more terrorists.) Certainly the Democrats and the Europeans have not suggested any strategy (except denial and appeasement) to protect America from such dangers.

        But in a dangerous world, even the best plans are fraught with danger, and there is no point in denying the dangers that await the play-out of the president's words. Perhaps effective economic sanctions can be put in place promptly. Perhaps Syria and Iran will thus comply sometime this year with Mr. Bush's demands. But probably Europe will undercut any effective economic coercion of Syria and Iran. And probably, later this year, President Bush will have to act on his demands or be seen by the world to be a paper tiger. All this suggests that we need to rapidly increase our Army and Marine infantry troop strength. Our armed forces are already stretched thin, and I fear we have not yet begun to fight.