These are dangerous times. George W. Bush is set to make another State of the Union address.
The last one was a doozy. Few speeches in political history have caused so much damage based on so little forethought by so many wise guys.
Not long after that famous "Axis of Evil" 2002 address, I was sharing a moment with William Kristol at a transatlantic confab in Brussels (where I happen to be again). He seemed a happy man, and why not? After a long and relatively public struggle, the Bush Administration had just adopted the neoconservative foreign policy doctrine of global military unilateralism and was promising to beat up bad guys--Iraq, Iran and North Korea--just as soon as it got around to it. I congratulated Kristol on his victory, but given how little sense it made to lump these three very different nations together, even for rhetorical purposes, one question nagged at me, "How can you be certain they mean it?" I wondered. "What if it was just a speechwriter?" Kristol told me not to worry. "In any other speech, at any other time, I'd be concerned," he averred. "But not the State of the Union. It's too important. Every sentence is fully vetted and deeply considered. Nothing gets in there that they are not sure they mean."
We now know that Kristol was being overly generous. As former Bush aide John DiIulio admitted before he was forced to make his show trial-style confession, we are living in "the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis," in which everything--and I mean everything--[is] being run by the political arm.... There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus."
Witness the 2002 address. David Frum, a former staffer of Kristol's at The Weekly Standard, was the original author of the "axis of evil" phrase during his fourteen-month sojourn as a White House speechwriter. We learned this first when his wife, Danielle Crittenden, sent out a mass e-mail announcing it. But Frum confirms the details in his score-settling memoir, The Right Man. Frum, who alternately describes Bush as "quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic; often uncurious and as a result ill-informed," and "a sharp exception to the White House code of niceness," says he originally came up with the term "axis of hatred," but it was later massaged by chief speechwriter Michael Gerson in order to employ "the theological language that Bush had made his own since September 11."
He had been assigned by Gerson to come up with a justification for war with Iraq. This, in itself, is rather alarming. After all, Frum was a relatively junior speechwriter with no experience in foreign affairs. The Administration had been trying to pin September 11 on the Iraqis almost from the beginning, and despite the energetic efforts of the punditocracy propaganda brigade, led in this case by the New York Times's William Safire, they failed miserably. Even the professionals at the CIA explicitly denied their case and gave Iraq a clean bill--terrorism-wise--since 1993. So it fell to Frum, who we now learn is about as flawed a student of history as Bush undoubtedly was when he got into Yale based on its affirmative-action policy for the sons of powerful rich white legacies. He came up with an analogy to Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo that would require further explication just to rate an F. Well, the whole concept might have been nothing more than yet another sad example of a bookish Jewish boy trying to sound like a Bible-thumping Texas gunfighter but it turns out that presidential ideas--even incoherent ones--have consequences. Knowledgeable critics immediately identified two obvious dangers. Yale historian Abbas Amanat warned that the phony saber rattling toward Iran would likely strengthen the mullahs there in their struggle with the progressive, democratic forces that are seeking to open that nation up to US/Western influence.
More significant, at least at the moment, were the alarm bells Bush's swaggering foolishness set off regarding the powder-keg Korean peninsula. As Morton Abramowitz and James Laney then warned, "Besides putting another knife in the diminishing South Korean president," the speech would likely cause "dangerous escalatory consequences [including]...renewed tensions on the peninsula and continued export of missiles to the Mideast." Bingo. North Korea called the Bush bluff, and the result, notes Richard Cohen, "has been a stumble, a fumble, an error compounded by a blooper.... as appalling a display of diplomacy as anyone has seen since a shooting in Sarajevo turned into World War I." Even so staunch a Bush booster as Charles Krauthammer has been forced to call his response an "abject Korea cave-in."
Ironically, the Bush team's macho/craven mismatch has endangered--at least for the time being--its obsession with "regime change" in Iraq. In England, America's most loyal ally in the fight against Saddam, Tony Blair, is under increasing pressure to withdraw his outspoken support for this unnecessary adventure. A Labour MP, described by Andrew Rawnsley, chief political commentator for The Observer, as "impeccably loyal and Atlanticist," admits, "I've no hang-ups about joining the United States in military action. It's following that cowboy which I find so hard to stomach." Rawnsley also quotes a former Conservative cabinet minister who says he regards George Bush as "a child running around with a grenade with the pin pulled out." Right now, the lack of confidence Bush inspires in our allies is the world's single best hope for peace.
Lest we forget the role of the librulmedia in all this, Bush's speech inspired Chris Matthews to compare him to John F. Kennedy. Doris Kearns Goodwin called it "galvanizing." Indeed. Let's hope this time around, with Frum out promoting his memoir, and the fruits of this North Korea nonsense bared for all to see, somebody keeps the guy tethered back to Mayberry. I doubt even Barney Fife could have screwed up foreign policy this badly. (And Professor DiIulio owes old Nicolo a big apology.)