Bush's tough talk should be weighed against opportunity

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2002

Blunt and unpleasant rhetoric has been flying back and forth between the United States and Europe in the past few weeks, at remarkably senior levels of government. President Bush has been publicly chastised by the British, French and German foreign ministers for his description of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil"; he has been demeaned as pandering to domestic opinion, informed that he was too simplistic and warned against treating European allies as American "satellites."

Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have replied in kind, dismissing the Euro-criticisms as the "vapors" of hyperventilating politicians. Coming as it does amid questions about Europe's slackening military commitment to NATO and America's drift toward unilateralism, the argument has an alarming tone. But it need not be destructive; in fact, it offers a vital opportunity for the United States and Europe to forge a new consensus on security strategy in the post-Sept. 11 world.

Though the Bush administration has occasionally been guilty of unilateralist leanings, it is wrong for Europeans to understand the "axis of evil" in those terms. Rather than a solo American project to eliminate hostile regimes, President Bush's State of the Union speech is better understood as the opposite: the beginning of a concerted campaign to convince key American allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East that the status-quo policies for containing Iraq, Iran and North Korea are no longer acceptable.

The change is overdue: Sanctions against Iraq are being flagrantly violated, even as Saddam Hussein defies United Nations resolutions calling for him to give up weapons of mass destruction. Iran continues to acquire nuclear and missile technology from Russia and China even as it sponsors extremists in Afghanistan and the Middle East. North Korea has failed to reciprocate the "sunshine" policy of the democratic South, or to fulfill promises to allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities.

After years of drift, Mr. Bush has effectively put U.S. partners on notice that the risk of living with these failed policies is no longer acceptable after Sept. 11 -- that new and more forceful strategies must be tried.

Mr. Bush's tour of Asia this week should mark the beginning of a concerted effort by the United States and key allies to develop those strategies. To his credit, Mr. Bush stressed in Tokyo that "we've got a coalition of freedom-loving nations that can work together" on the problem, and that "all options are on the table"; his aides add that there are no plans for early or unilateral U.S. military action. The president is now sounding out Japan, South Korea and China; Mr. Powell offered the assurance that talks with Europe will soon follow.

Like some past arguments between the allies, this one will be worth it if it succeeds in creating a new and more solid front of resistance to a common enemy -- in this case, anti-democratic regimes that pursue nuclear and biological weapons. For that to happen, European governments must drop their pointless rhetoric about unilateralism and make their own proposals for countering the threat; President Bush, for his part, must be prepared to fulfill his promise to listen as well as lead.

--The Washington Post

Feb. 20

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