Aboard the U.S.S. Caine, it was the business with the strawberries that finally convinced the doubters that something was amiss with the captain. Is foreign policy George W. Bush's quart of strawberries?
Over the past few weeks there has been an epidemic of epiphanies. There's a long list of pundits who previously supported Bush's policy on Iraq but have publicly changed their minds. None of them quarrel with the goal; who wouldn't want to see Saddam Hussein overthrown? But they are finally realizing that Mr. Bush is the wrong man to do the job. And more people than you would think — including a fair number of people in the Treasury Department, the State Department and, yes, the Pentagon — don't just question the competence of Mr. Bush and his inner circle; they believe that America's leadership has lost touch with reality.
If that sounds harsh, consider the debacle of recent diplomacy — a debacle brought on by awesome arrogance and a vastly inflated sense of self-importance.
Mr. Bush's inner circle seems amazed that the tactics that work so well on journalists and Democrats don't work on the rest of the world. They've made promises, oblivious to the fact that most countries don't trust their word. They've made threats. They've done the aura-of-inevitability thing — how many times now have administration officials claimed to have lined up the necessary votes in the Security Council? They've warned other countries that if they oppose America's will they are objectively pro-terrorist. Yet still the world balks.
Wasn't someone at the State Department allowed to point out that in matters nonmilitary, the U.S. isn't all that dominant — that Russia and Turkey need the European market more than they need ours, that Europe gives more than twice as much foreign aid as we do and that in much of the world public opinion matters? Apparently not.
And to what end has Mr. Bush alienated all our most valuable allies? (And I mean all: Tony Blair may be with us, but British public opinion is now virulently anti-Bush.) The original reasons given for making Iraq an immediate priority have collapsed. No evidence has ever surfaced of the supposed link with Al Qaeda, or of an active nuclear program. And the administration's eagerness to believe that an Iraqi nuclear program does exist has led to a series of embarrassing debacles, capped by the case of the forged Niger papers, which supposedly supported that claim. At this point it is clear that deposing Saddam has become an obsession, detached from any real rationale.
What really has the insiders panicked, however, is the irresponsibility of Mr. Bush and his team, their almost childish unwillingness to face up to problems that they don't feel like dealing with right now.
I've talked in this column about the administration's eerie passivity in the face of a stalling economy and an exploding budget deficit: reality isn't allowed to intrude on the obsession with long-run tax cuts. That same "don't bother me, I'm busy" attitude is driving foreign policy experts, inside and outside the government, to despair.
Need I point out that North Korea, not Iraq, is the clear and present danger? Kim Jong Il's nuclear program isn't a rumor or a forgery; it's an incipient bomb assembly line. Yet the administration insists that it's a mere "regional" crisis, and refuses even to talk to Mr. Kim.
The Nelson Report, an influential foreign policy newsletter, says: "It would be difficult to exaggerate the growing mixture of anger, despair, disgust and fear actuating the foreign policy community in Washington as the attack on Iraq moves closer, and the North Korea crisis festers with no coherent U.S. policy. . . . We are at the point now where foreign policy generally, and Korea policy specifically, may become George Bush's `Waco.' . . . This time, it's Kim Jong Il (and Saddam) playing David Koresh. . . . Sober minds wrestle with how to break into the mind of George Bush."
We all hope that the war with Iraq is a swift victory, with a minimum of civilian casualties. But more and more people now realize that even if all goes well at first, it will have been the wrong war, fought for the wrong reasons — and there will be a heavy price to pay.
Alas, the epiphanies of the pundits have almost surely come too late. The odds are that by the time you read my next column, the war will already have started.
Originally published in The New York Times, 3.14.03