When Bush the Younger adds a new phrase to the English language, questions assault the mind: Did he mean to say it? Does he understand what he said? Is an allusion intended, or just plucked from the flotsam and jetsam floating around in his head? By the time the United States finally got off its duff and entered World War II, Hitler had unified his control of continental Europe and Tojo’s forces had command of most of East and Southeast Asia. Thus the Axis had transformed the global balance of power in both East and West. Today the Bush Administration, fresh from chasing callow Taliban youths from power, restoring Afghanistan’s politics to the warlord era circa 1995 and failing to find Osama bin Laden or root out Al Qaeda’s terror network (except in Afghanistan, maybe), leaps forward with new demons: an axis of evil running from Pyongyang to Baghdad to Teheran.
Some axis: Iraq and Iran hate each other, the legacy of their war in the 1980s (recall the towering cynicism of Henry Kissinger, who thought the best outcome would be for them both to lose–and they did, with appalling slaughter on both sides). North Korea has barely any relationship with Iraq. It has sold missile and other military technology to Iran, but a piddling amount compared with what Washington sold to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, or sells to South Korea today. In short, the wheels of this axis are falling off in every direction. North Korea has the added attraction that its jerry-built missiles are the primary public targets of America’s National Missile Defense. Today South Korea’s military budget is greater than the North’s gross national product, but the North must still play the Great Satan in the Bush Doctrine, enunciated with consummate diplomatic artfulness just in advance of the President’s trip to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. Even the tepid New York Times editors denounced this doctrine of blunt threats and implied pre-emptive military action as a radical departure toward the promiscuous brandishing of American might.
Remember how Black September led just about everyone to imagine that the world would never be the same? Everything had changed, a caesura had opened in world history. For a while after September 11 an administration that had come in with a sweeping and assertive unilateralism seemed to have learned just how many friends it had in the world, as a collegial, multilateral diplomacy quickly unfolded. NATO resolved that the attacks on the United States were also attacks against NATO itself. Prime Minister Tony Blair gave new vigor to the special relationship between London and Washington. Various countries pledged soldiers, bases and funds to the war in Afghanistan. It looked like Russia and China had joined the United States and its allies in the common task of a global struggle against terrorism, and that a rare unity had cut across the old divisions of world politics.
But then the war in Afghanistan went quickly to its denouement, with little allied involvement–by and large the Pentagon seemed not to want it–and the inherent unilateralism of the Bush Administration reasserted itself. If, in the early going, Blair acted like a President and Bush like a prime minister, Blair’s ringing condemnations of the terrorists did not bring him closer to the inner circle of Bush’s decision-making. Likewise, there was little consultation with European allies on the future of Afghanistan, except that Washington wants them to shoulder the burden of peacekeeping and nation-building in that benighted country. In December the United States announced its withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, over Russia’s opposition (and later, pained acquiescence), thus to get on with building its pet missile defense, bringing great domestic pressures on Russian leader Vladimir Putin and a dire threat to China’s modest nuclear deterrent (which missile defense would neutralize). Then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin found listening bugs crawling all over his new Boeing 767, but chose to turn the other cheek and welcome Bush’s visit.