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How much harm could he do? 

When North Korea exploded a nuclear device and ushered in a new age of nuclear terror last week, those halcyon days of peace and optimism that marked the turn of the century suddenly seemed so much further back in the mists than a mere six years.

America then bestrode a peaceful world like no other nation in history, almost universally admired and by its few enemies grudgingly respected. Its leader, despite personal disgrace at home, was feted and mobbed by admirers in any capital in the world he cared to visit. Remember?

So confident were we in the future that it did not seem to matter terribly that the new president-to-be was a man who knew and cared little about even recent history and who surrounded himself with people who thought its lessons were no longer of any consequence. The country was going to be run by a man with only a few simple ideas, one of which was that any obstacle to American designs in the world could be resolved easily by American power or the threat of its use. How much harm could he do, really, to a nation so resilient and robust and a world happy to follow its lead?

Incalculable, we have quickly learned. The United States soon found itself warring endlessly in two countries and knowing not how to end the hemorrhaging and destruction, facing the prospect of a new and hostile nuclear power in the Middle East that taunted the United States with impunity, and, finally, confronted by the reality of nuclear bombs in the hands of a paranoid outlaw in the Far East. Except for solitary Saddam Hussein, the few enemies of 2000 are transcendent.

The Bush administration likes to explain it by saying that 9/11 “changed everything,” everything including the way that the United States has conducted its affairs in the Middle East and Asia since at least Eisenhower. The perils in Iraq, Iran and Korea are not the fruits of the 19 terrorists of 9/11 but of a president who was either ignorant or dismissive of history and who believed that brave talk and threats, not diplomacy, were the only tools for dealing with even pallid enemies like Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the “axis of evil.”

When he unilaterally invaded a virtually prostrate Iraq in 2003 to get rid of nonexistent weapons and to sever a key link to al Qaeda, Bush may really have not known, as he would claim, what his father and every cognizant leader of the world knew: that Osama bin Laden loathed Saddam (and vice versa) and would celebrate his ouster.

In the spring of 1991, after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Saudi royal family rejected bin Laden’s request that his men, who had helped bring down the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan, repel the Iraqis. If the Americans came to the holy soil, he correctly predicted, they would never leave. Bin Laden left Saudi Arabia and settled in Sudan to begin his jihad against the new occupiers. The first attack on the World Trade Center followed two years later.

Iran and North Korea are essentially the same story. Unlike Saddam, they worried about American power and Bush’s implied threat to change their regimes. Nuclear bombs clearly were a deterrent. And it worked. At some pains, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared last week that the United States had no plans to ever attack North Korea. Even that implied threat was taken out of the sanctions resolution of the United Nations Security Council over the weekend.

Four years late, the Bush family agent, James Baker, advised the president two weeks ago that talking to your critics and foes was not, as the entire administration had been saying, appeasement.

North Korea launched its nuclear quest 50 years ago when President Truman and then his successor, Eisenhower, suggested obliquely that the United States might use atomic weapons against the country if it did not negotiate peace. The Soviet Union supplied the North with a research reactor in 1965 and the country built upon it. During the Reagan administration, the country began reprocessing fuel into weapons-grade material, but then in 1985 diplomacy persuaded the dictator to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Under the first President Bush, the United States removed the last of its nuclear weapons aimed at Pyongyang from South Korea. The North tried to withdraw from the treaty in 1994 but direct negotiations with the Clinton administration, including assurances that the United States would not attack them, produced the agreement to seal the spent fuel under international monitoring, which the Bush administration seeks to blame for the current crisis.

The regime secretly hedged, but the fact is that diplomacy quelled the nuclear threat until 2002, when President Bush declared the government evil, threatened military action and refused direct talks. Now he has what he said he would never accept and what United Nations sanctions will not change. We must all face another arms race, involving nations far less rational than the Russians and Chinese, which seemed unimaginable six short years ago.


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