Diplomatic Diary: A New World Order?

Sometimes the glare of the moment is so sharp that it's hard to see two steps ahead. Yet President Bush's address to the world on Monday went far beyond the blinding flash of war. While we were all trying to focus on Bush's warnings to Iraq--and especially on the fate of Saddam Hussein and his sons--Bush was mapping out an even bigger, bolder vision for the whole planet.

For six long months of painful diplomacy, the administration has veered between two policies: disarmament and regime change. In theory, both have the same goal--to eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction. But in practice, they could not be more different in how they are executed and how they impact the rest of the world.

Over all those months of internal debate and international wrangling, the administration--and other governments--was really grappling with a simple question: is it possible to disarm or restrain a hostile regime peacefully? If the answer is yes, then you might support weapons inspectors, sanctions and the work of the United Nations. If the answer is no, you might as well get ready for several more wars.

That was the unmistakable message from President Bush to several countries beyond Iraq's borders. "In this century, when evil men plot chemical, biological and nuclear terror, a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth," he explained. "Responding to such enemies only after they have struck first is not self-defense. It is suicide."

Many commentators have suggested that Bush only woke up to this threat after the 9-11 attacks 18 months ago. In fact, the nightmare of evil men (dictators or terrorists) armed with such weapons has always been one of his recurring themes, stretching back to the start of his presidential campaign in 1999. The big difference before 9-11 was that Bush used the prospect of such evil to rally support for a system of national missile defense. Another difference is that nobody took him--or the threats he was describing--seriously.

Now Bush raises the prospect of Saddam as the arch-terrorist and we all take notice. "If Saddam Hussein attempts to cling to power, he will remain a deadly foe until the end," Bush said. "In desperation, he and terrorist groups might try to conduct terrorist operations against the American people and our friends. These attacks are not inevitable. They are, however, possible.

"And this very fact underscores the reason we cannot live under the threat of blackmail."

In reality, this argument is far less about hard facts than simple fears. Indeed the administration's attempts to link Saddam to terrorists have proved the most controversial of all the arguments made to justify war. Even as the administration suggested overlaps between Iraq and Al Qaeda, senior officials said there was no evidence of any joint operations or planning.

Moreover, those same officials conceded that other nations, such as Iran, were far closer to terrorist groups and had a proven track record of planning and supporting terrorist attacks on American targets as well as U.S. allies. As for blackmail, Saddam's bluster has never even come close to a credible attempt. Most of his vastly over-inflated threats appear designed to impress his own terrified people.

So what are we left with in terms of the facts? That Saddam "will remain a deadly foe until the end." That is unquestionably true: Saddam is indeed a deadly foe. But then, so is Kim Jong Il of North Korea, so are the security forces in Iran and so are the dictators of Libya and Syria. They are all on notice now--as long as the war in Iraq goes according to plan.

In all these countries, Bush's speech will be read closely to understand what may happen after Iraq. And their responses will be tuned accordingly. Will Iran and North Korea speed up their nuclear and missile programs? Or will their repressive regimes collapse at the first sight of American force? In case you're wondering about the official analysis, the administration is already assuming the crisis in Korea will escalate. Senior officials who deal with North Korea expect Kim Jong Il to test-fire more missiles as soon as the war begins in Iraq.

So how are we to understand Bush's insistence that he will seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis in North Korea and the threat of Iran's nuclear programs? Can we square those comments with his speech on Saddam's fate?

Bush's senior aides say nothing has changed. They even suggest that the train wreck at the United Nations will have no impact on the international diplomacy required to deal with Iran and North Korea. Pointing to existing agreements, including the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), one senior official said: "The fact that the Security Council has this particular problem with respect to the French doesn't mean that you can't have international solutions to these international problems. The president has said this to French President Jacques Chirac and Chirac has said the same thing. We disagree on this issue. It has gone a little out of hand, largely on the French side. But that isn't to say there aren't other issues where we are going to cooperate."

They are nice words, presidentially-speaking. Of course both leaders insist they can set aside these small issues like war. Of course they can forget all about the mudslinging and mutual recrimination. But it's hard to imagine they can really agree on how to deal with other evil regimes-regimes with greater links to terrorism and far more advanced weapons programs. After all, it wasn't just the French. At the United Nations, both the Russians and the Chinese also balked at the prospect of a new world order where the United States was taking down regimes that might one day pose a serious threat to peace.

At the time--when the administration was still pursuing diplomacy--U.S. officials suggested that criticism was a slippery excuse for inaction on Iraq. It often looked that way. But now Bush has made his policy of regime change clear and is setting about the second phase of a new world order, after the victory in Afghanistan. Whatever happens in Iraq, the world may never be the same again.

Diplomatic Diary: A New World Order? | News