President Bush says he will pursue diplomacy to try to persuade North Korea to abandon its goal of being a nuclear power, as opposed to the military means he used against Iraq, another country he accused of being part of the “axis of evil” but which had no nuclear weapons.
Our words do have a way of coming back to haunt us.
Bush argues that he will not talk to North Korea because its leader, Kim Jong Il, can’t be trusted, whereas he, Bush, is a man of his word. Bush’s word is that he has a “better diplomatic hand” not by standing alone on the issue of North Korea’s apparent nuclear testing but by having other nations send the message directly to North Korea that a nuclear axis of evil is intolerable.
However, just about everyone else in the world of diplomacy argues that not only must Russia, China, Japan and South Korea bring their weight to bear against North Korea, but that the United States must take North Korea’s threat seriously and talk to its leader.
As infuriating and diabolical as Kim Jong Il is, we must remember that North Korea argues that the nuclear reactors we were supposed to build to provide it with energy if it dropped its nuclear program were late and were never finished, just as the rebuilding of Iraq is way behind schedule. Also, we promised to end our hostility to North Korea, which we have not done. We argue that North Korea went back on its word, but it also argues that we went back on our word, and more than just a few of our allies agree.
Our own words sometimes have a way of hitting us over the head.
Bush said Iraq would be an in-and-out cakewalk. It wasn’t. He knows that military action against North Korea would be an unthinkable catastrophe, leaving millions dead and Southeast Asia in chaos for years. But North Korea may now be our most dangerous enemy, soon able to sell nuclear weapons to terrorists.
After another of the president’s “stay-the-course” press conferences a few days ago, during which he again failed to provide a viable plan for exiting Iraq and again refused to consider direct talks with North Korea, polls indicate that likely voters are more interested in the economy than in foreign affairs.
Bush is heartened by that. He said it is a harbinger of a Republican victory in the crucial elections Nov. 7, when the nation will vote on all House seats and one-third of the Senate seats. What he considers good economic times and his sharp attacks on Democrats for criticizing the war in Iraq will combine to convince voters to vote Republican, he predicted. He is confident, he says, that he will have a Republican speaker of the House and a Republican majority leader in the Senate next year and a phalanx of GOP stalwarts working with him.
One could hardly expect him to predict defeat, but words can backfire.
As for the economy, Bush says with elation that he is three years ahead of his pledge to cut the annual deficit by half. Democrats are gleefully pointing out that this is nonsense because the president is using projections of deficits, not actual figures, on which to base his claim.
Also, under Bush the national debt has soared to a staggering $8.5 trillion, an increase of nearly $3 trillion. But when he was elected, he promised that his economic plan would pay off the national debt in 16 years.
Funny how our words can turn on us.
When Bush took office, he pledged to develop a plan that would not spend defense dollars on “political projects.” He also pledged to bring U.S. military equipment up to date. Hundreds of billions of dollars later, Iraq is still eating up billions, and our soldiers in Iraq still don’t have all the equipment they need. Bush doesn’t even put the cost of the war in his budget. He keeps asking Congress for “supplemental” spending for Iraq.
Despite what Bush says, on his watch, the national debt has soared, new countries are on the verge of going nuclear and the world is more dangerous.
Voters should stop paying attention to Bush’s words, ignore his campaign speeches and vote their gut instincts about the direction the country is taking. Bush will be in office for two more years, but, despite his words, staying the course at home and abroad is not our only option.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)