When Evil Is Everywhere

Has Bush been right all along, or is his world view part of the problem?

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Bush and team
Bush and team in the White House after he signs the Iraq war resolution

Did George Bush's world suddenly become a lot more complicated? Or did last week's astonishing events just convince him that he's been right all along? When word leaked of North Korea's secret nuclear program, the President's critics were quick to claim that he had become a prisoner of his doctrine. How could Bush go to war against one tyrant because he might be developing nuclear weapons while negotiating with another who just admitted that he has them? If everyone is either with us or against us, what does Bush do now about Pakistan, our ally in the war on terrorism, if it was the source of North Korea's nuclear equipment? And why go looking for trouble when it seems so determined to come and find us? Al-Qaeda suddenly seemed to be everywhere: Indonesia, Kuwait, perhaps the Philippines, even — if CIA chief George Tenet is right — on our doorstep.

And then there is Iraq, still looming large in the President's cross hairs even as other targets vie for first position. In signing the congressional resolution allowing him to go to war, Bush attacked Saddam because he "promotes international terror" and "seeks nuclear weapons." But Iran, the prime sponsor of Hizballah and Islamic Jihad, is among the world's main exporters of terrorism. And now North Korea has confessed to breaking every pledge it made on the way to amassing its own weapons of mass destruction.

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Did last week's events expose the Bush Doctrine as too brittle for an unruly world? Not to hear Administration officials tell it. Instead, they provided fresh evidence that terrorism and nuclear weapons are the twin threats facing the civilized world and that nothing less than a brave and muscular response can save us. "Those who choose to live in denial may eventually be forced to live in fear," Bush declared as he signed the Iraq resolution. Or put another way, all those credulous Clinton folks who cut deals with North Korea to stall its nuclear program, who tossed some bombs on Iraq and walked away, merely postponed the inevitable while making things worse. What was swept under the rug, the hawks say, we are now pulling out and confronting, with an ounce of prevention if possible, a pound of cure if we must.

It would be easier for Bush to be patient with the liars in Pyongyang and contemptuous of the liars in Baghdad if he hadn't set himself up as being morally allergic to deals with the devil. But the Administration has long seen distinctions among the evils in its axis. The North Koreans confessed, which implies a willingness to keep talking. Saddam continues to dodge and deny, which to the Bushies implies that only force can work. "North Korea isn't an imminent threat to anyone," says former CIA Director Bob Gates. "They haven't attacked anyone in 50 years." Iraq invades its neighbors and could use nuclear weapons to threaten the whole region, which — at least until last week — was far more volatile than Asia.

Still, it took 12 days for U.S. officials to go public with North Korea's admission, which suggests they wrestled with the potential complications. Inside the Bush wheelhouse, the hard-liners will debate among themselves: Should we isolate North Korea — or just bomb its reprocessing facilities? Cooler heads are likely to prevail, and Bush will team up with China and Japan to force Pyongyang into another give-up-the-nukes-for-aid agreement — but only after enough time passes so that no one can accuse the men who model themselves on Churchill of looking like Chamberlain.

Whatever happens, they can — and probably will — argue that their hard line is working and that messages sent in one direction are being heard in another. Administration officials suggest Pyongyang was worried that Bush's doctrine of pre-emption might eventually be pointed in its direction. For most of the past two years, Bush hard-liners have refused to even talk to North Korea, believing that the Clinton policy of engagement was for suckers. Having confessed, the North Koreans are now subject to diplomatic pressure. "This is an Administration that was determined not to get into a dialogue with them," says Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "and the first time they do, they make a major breakthrough." For the hawks, the real lesson from North Korea is that treaties, communiques and compromises don't work when you are dealing with someone who will lie right through the signing ceremony — unless you have a gun in your hand.