Hey, `axis': America's crazy, too

February 17, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

LONDON - Reading Europe's press, it is really reassuring to see how warmly Europeans have embraced President Bush's formulation that an "axis of evil" threatens world peace. There's only one small problem. Mr. Bush thinks the axis of evil is Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and the Europeans think it's Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice.

I'm not kidding. Chris Patten, the European Union's foreign policy czar, told The Guardian that the Bush axis-of-evil idea was dangerously "absolutist and simplistic," not "thought through" and "unhelpful," and that the Europeans needed to stop Washington before it went into "unilateralist overdrive."

So what do I think? I think these critics are right that the countries Mr. Bush identified as an axis of evil really are not an "axis," and we shouldn't drive them together. And the critics are right that each of these countries poses a different kind of threat and requires a different, nuanced response. And the critics are right that America can't fight everywhere alone.

And the critics are right that America needs to launch a serious effort to end Israeli-Palestinian violence, because it's undermining any hope of U.S.-Arab cooperation.

The critics are right on all these counts - but I'm still glad Mr. Bush said what he said.

Because the critics are missing the larger point, which is this: Sept. 11 happened because America had lost its deterrent capability. We lost it because for 20 years, we never retaliated against, or brought to justice, those who murdered Americans.

From the first suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April 1983, to the bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut airport a few months later, to the TWA hijacking, to the attack on U.S. troops at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, to the suicide bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, to the attack on the USS Cole, innocent Americans were killed and we did nothing.

So our enemies took us less and less seriously and became more and more emboldened. Indeed, so emboldened that a group of individuals - think about that for a second: not a state but a group of individuals - attacked America in its own backyard. Why not?

The terrorists and the states that harbor them thought we were soft, and they were right. They thought that they could always "out-crazy" us, and they were right. They thought we would always listen to the Europeans and opt for "constructive engagement" with rogues, not a fist in the face, and they were right.

America's enemies smelled weakness all over us, and we paid a huge price for that.

There is an old Bedouin legend that goes like this: An elderly Bedouin leader thought that by eating turkey he could restore his virility. So he bought a turkey, kept it by his tent and stuffed it with food every day. One day someone stole his turkey. The Bedouin elder called his sons together and told them: "Boys, we are in great danger. Someone has stolen my turkey." "Father," the sons answered, "what do you need a turkey for?"

"Never mind," he answered, "just get me back my turkey."

But the sons ignored him, and a month later someone stole the old man's camel. "What should we do?" the sons asked. "Find my turkey," said the father.

But the sons did nothing, and a few weeks later the man's daughter was raped. The father said to his sons: "It is all because of the turkey. When they saw that they could take my turkey, we lost everything."

America is that Bedouin elder, and for 20 years people have been taking our turkey. The Europeans don't favor any military action against Iraq, Iran or North Korea. Neither do I. But what is their alternative? To wait until Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, who's even a bigger psychopath than his father, has bioweapons and missiles that can hit Paris?

No, the axis-of-evil idea isn't thought through - but that's what I like about it. It says to these countries and their terrorist pals: "We know what you're cooking in your bathtubs. We don't know exactly what we're going to do about it, but if you think we are going to just sit back and take another dose from you, you're wrong. Meet Don Rumsfeld - he's even crazier than you are."

There is a lot about the Bush team's foreign policy I don't like, but their willingness to restore our deterrence, and to be as crazy as some of our enemies, is one thing they have right. It is the only way we're going to get our turkey back.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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