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Accidental imperialist { December 30 2002 }

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The Accidental Imperialist

By Jackson Diehl

Monday, December 30, 2002; Page A17

As the United States enters the new year facing crises -- and the potential for war -- in Iraq and North Korea simultaneously, an obvious question presents itself: Did the Bush administration bring all this trouble on itself?

Most Europeans would say it did. So would several of the emerging Democratic presidential candidates. This, they would say, is the natural consequence of Bush's aggressive unilateralism, his militaristic new doctrine of preemption, his insistence on expanding a justified war against al Qaeda to a misconstrued "axis of evil."

When Bush took office two years ago, this argument goes, neither Iraq nor North Korea looked very worrisome. Didn't Colin Powell himself, at his first press conference with the president-elect, dismiss Saddam Hussein as a "weak" dictator "sitting on a failed regime that is not going to be around in a few years time"? As for North Korea, the outgoing Clinton team seemingly had come to within inches of striking a comprehensive deal that would have ended the WMD threat from Pyongyang. Dictator Kim Jong Il was engaging with the South, and appeared ready to open his hermit state to the outside world.

Had the Bush administration stuck with Powell's initial strategy of patching up the "box" in which Iraq had been contained during the previous decade and embraced his impulse to continue the negotiations with North Korea, the United States might be entering 2003 fully focused on winning the still-formidable fight with al Qaeda and stabilizing a still-volatile Afghanistan -- a pretty full plate. Instead it is mobilizing tens of thousands of troops and juggling U.N. Security Council debates to deal with two dictators, both capable of defending themselves with weapons of mass destruction, who could have been managed or left to stew on back burners.

Or so goes the argument. Yet there is another way of looking at the history of the last two years: not as a tale of an arrogant cowboy stirring up the world's rattlesnakes, but of an initially cautious, uncertain and quasi-isolationist president reacting to the crystallization of a new global era.

The Bush administration of pre-9/11 actually appeared content to string along the old policies on Iraq and North Korea. Iraq hawks inside the administration were a distinct minority, and Powell eventually won the argument about whether to reopen talks with Pyongyang. Bush's foreign policy mostly consisted of trying to retreat from international treaties and foreign military deployments. His signature initiative was missile defense, which implicitly signaled a strategy of ignoring rogue states until their missiles reached the territory of the United States.

This was a policy for the world of the 1990s, when the minority of Americans who cared about international affairs debated the indiscernible shape of the "post-Cold War era," when a booming United States felt free to nurse along, or simply neglect, threats from the likes of Iraq. There was the luxury to debate whether it was worthwhile to intervene to stop a war of aggression -- even if it were in Europe -- or one of history's worst episodes of genocide -- if it happened in Africa.

Then a new era came knocking, and not just in the form of hijacked airliners. As sanctions on Iraq crumbled, it became more and more obvious that Saddam Hussein had not been contained: He had developed new weapons -- drone aircraft and longer-range missiles -- and was aggressively hunting for nuclear materials. The supposedly peaceable Kim Jong Il was discovered to have launched another secret bomb project even while Madeleine Albright was negotiating with him. The minimalism with which a contented America engaged the world in the 1990s, and with which the Bush administration began, suddenly looked like a dangerous shirking of responsibility.

In a recent meeting at The Post, my colleague David Broder asked a senior administration official why Bush had come to embrace "an almost imperial role" for the United States. The answer was long, eloquent, and revealing. "A few years ago, there were great debates about what would be the threats of the post-Cold War world, would it be the rise of another great power, would it be humanitarian needs or ethnic conflicts," the official said. "And I think we now know: The threats are terrorism and national states with weapons of mass destruction and the possible union of those two forces."

"It's pretty clear that the United States is the single most powerful country in international relations for a very long time. . . . [It]is the only state capable of dealing with that kind of chaotic environment and providing some kind of order. I think there is an understanding that that is America's responsibility, just like it was America standing between Nazi Germany and a takeover of all of Europe. No, we don't have to do it alone. But the United States has to lead that."

By that account, the conflicts that will shape this difficult winter of 2003 were mostly inevitable. It's just that, as half a century ago, Americans were slow to understand the threat, and reluctant to take it on -- until inaction seemed the worst choice.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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