Dealing with the new axis

Posted: Feb 04, 2002 12:00 AM
That was a heady series from the administration, President Bush on Day 1 to the Congress, Secretary Rumsfeld on Day 2 to the National Defense University, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on Day 3 to the Conservative Political Action Conference. The pivotal statement, engraved now like a Bill of Rights in the mind not only of its author, but of its challengers: "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." And he named Iran, Iraq and North Korea as "the axis of evil" in the world.

The immediate reaction, as one might expect, was from leaders of those countries. It boiled down to, Who, me? , which was a healthy sign. It is at some level reassuring that a nation just doesn't want to be called evil.

On the other hand, that reflex doesn't guarantee the effort to act in such a way as to change those patterns of behavior that earned the anathema. It isn't as if those three countries were genetically predestined to evil. In our time, Russia was baptized, if not quite yet confirmed. And the Libya of 2002 is very different from the Libya of the Pan Am bombing, different from the Libya against which President Reagan ordered a punitive strike.

The exegetes are studying the exact words of Mr. Bush and of his emissaries Rumsfeld and Rice. If it is true merely that we won't allow those three countries to threaten us with destructive weapons, when is it that we rise to the challenge? After they acquire destructive weapons? Or only when, having acquired them, they threaten us with them?

It sounds more moderate, put that way. But of course there is the problem that when a country acquires a destructive weapon, it becomes too late to move against it. Israel has a nuclear weapon, which is one reason why hostile forces do not attempt a forthright elimination of Israel by a massive invasion. We do not know exactly what North Korea has, but presumably sometime before it gets a deliverable nuclear weapon, an American weapon less absolute than a nuclear bomb will drop down on the nascent threat.

So what specifically are we to do during the gestation periods, before these weapons come to term? Condoleezza Rice explains that "the president is calling on the world, on our friends and our allies, to join us in preventing these regimes from developing and deploying these weapons." This, she adds, "is a serious matter and it requires a serious response." Yes. What is that response?

Mr. Rumsfeld gives us a metaphor. "It's like dealing with burglars. You can't possibly know who wants to break into your home" -- but, actually, we do know. Some people call it the axis -- "or when they might try it -- but you do know how they might try to get in. You know they might try to pick your lock -- and that you need good, solid deadbolts on your front door. You know that they might try breaking through a window -- and that you need a good alarm system. You know it's better to stop them before they get in -- and that you need a police force to patrol the neighborhood and keep the bad guys off the streets." He added an even more homely image: "And you know that a big German shepherd wouldn't hurt either."

Rumsfeld went on to outline a "New Triad." The old one, during the Cold War, called for a military capability adequate to respond with massive manpower backed by overwhelming nuclear forces to threats on two fronts. Instead, we will have "reduced offensive nuclear forces, advanced conventional capabilities, and a range of new defenses (ballistic-missile defense, cruiser-missile defense, space defense, cyber defense) supported by a revitalized defense infrastructure."

This sounds, indeed, like the transformation of the defense system that we never got under President Clinton. But it runs the risk of wispiness every day we have to wait for an ultimatum to Iraq. The president has made forward steps in sending signals that there will be a change in policy on aid to the two internal resistance forces in Iraq, the Kurds in the north, the Shiites in the south. But can it be supposed they will topple Saddam Hussein?

What is Mr. Bush expecting, concretely, from our allies? Rumsfeld listed as the third of his "transformational goals" "to deny to our enemies sanctuary -- making sure they know that no corner of the world is remote enough, no mountain high enough, no cave or bunker deep enough, no SUV fast enough, to protect them from our reach."

But this means corollary adjustments in attitude on enemies apprehended. There is plenty of space left over in Guantanamo for more of what we have got, which would include more Saudis than are already there. But what progress is there in getting these? And convening other terrorists, from Egypt and Pakistan, let alone Iran and Iraq, to a Devil's Island of isolation, where they can read the Koran and listen to tapes of Bush, Rumsfeld and Rice?