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The Tin Badge

After a year of bold talk about rogue states, weapons of mass destruction and America’s superpower duties, it seems the Bush administration may have painted itself into a corner. That global policeman’s shield is starting to look like little more than a tin badge.

It was just last September that the administration, in a sweeping new National Security Strategy, laid out a vision of America preserving peace and freedom around the globe through swift, pre-emptive action against terrorists and states that support them. Yes, the document declared, America would seek to “enlist the support of the international community,” but “we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary.”

Well, that was then. The threat we had in mind back then was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a broken-down Middle Eastern satrapy run by a megalomaniac who’s been concocting doomsday weapons in backyard labs and threatening to use them on his neighbors if someone would sell him the missiles to deliver them. In the face of such a global crisis our patience was limited, both for Saddam’s threats and for the dithering of our friends and allies who urged diplomacy.

“History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act,” the president’s National Security Strategy declared. “In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action.”

Now it’s 2003, and suddenly we’re up against Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, a very different kettle of fish. Our new problem is an industrialized communist police state run by a megalomaniac who apparently is only months away from possessing nuclear bombs and already has the missiles to deliver them.

Suddenly notions like crisis and swift action aren’t so clear-cut. Now we’re taking our time, consulting our allies, exploring diplomatic options, urging North Korea’s neighbors to contain the threat before it gets out of hand. Indeed, there were signs of back-pedaling this week on Iraq, too, when Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared on the Sunday talk shows to declare that war in Iraq was not a foregone conclusion and that United Nations weapons inspectors still need time to work.

How did Iraq get to be a global crisis and North Korea just a neighborhood spat? Some conspiracy theorists see dark motives: oil, Bush family revenge, anti-Arab racism or even that old conspiracy stand-by, Israeli influence.

But the answer is much simpler. It appears the administration simply got caught flat-footed. Like so many others before, America built a grand strategy based on unilateral action, without considering that others are quite capable of making their own plans, and they aren’t always predictable.

It’s a common mistake, particularly when populists take over high-stakes diplomacy. Impatient with the “striped-pants boys” who manage the world’s foreign ministries, the action crowd tries to cut through the verbiage and moral ambiguities and set a course of plain speaking and direct action. But things are rarely simple. Direct action often leads to unintended consequences.

This is not to question the overall goals of containing rogue states and stopping terrorism. The president’s understanding of Iraq as a threatening state and America as freedom’s main defender is fundamentally sound. Those who call for more diplomacy, less bluster and more time for U.N. inspections are questioning the administration’s means, not its ends.

That’s important to remember, because not everyone in this debate is on the same side. Too much of the opposition to the administration’s policies arises from a Vietnam-era mentality that sees America as the main threat to world peace and forgives every sin in America’s opponents. To listen to some voices on the left, one might think that John Ashcroft was more dangerous than Saddam.

As German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer reminded us in a recent American television interview, our side consists of those who value freedom and human dignity. Those are still the values that unite the Western democracies. At times the world needs a strong America that’s willing and able to play global sheriff. And a smart sheriff doesn’t ride without his posse.

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