For Mr. Bush, the new year isn't so bright

January 08, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Only two months after President Bush seemed to be on top of the world, what with his Republican Party's November election triumph and his own continued popularity at home, the new year has begun under gathering gray skies.

In foreign policy, the U.N. inspectors in Iraq he didn't want have annoyingly not yet come up with, or at least made public, the weapons of mass destruction that are the rationale for the pre-emptive war that Mr. Bush is planning.

On top of that, the North Koreans have kicked out their U.N. nuclear watchdogs and blatantly announced resumption of their nuclear weapons program, with speculation that they already have a couple of the doomsday devices.

The prospect suggests they are seeking at minimum to blackmail the Bush administration into giving them more desperately needed aid, or at most to imperil South Korea in some act of nuclear madness.

All of this has created an embarrassment of rhetoric for the president. On one hand, he is threatening war against Iraq for trying to get nuclear weapons. On the other, he is turning the other cheek to the North Koreans who may already have them.

This contradiction shoots a gaping hole in his new "strategic defense strategy" that justifies pre-emptive military action against any nation, presumably including his self-characterized "axis of evil" - Iraq, Iran and North Korea - on grounds it is the responsibility of the remaining superpower to police the world.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, apparently taking Mr. Bush at his word, was quick to give assurances that the United States is fully capable of waging war simultaneously and successfully against both Iraq and North Korea.

Once again, Secretary of State Colin Powell, the administration's diplomatic fire extinguisher, had to put out Mr. Rumsfeld's flame by declaring the North Korean development a non-crisis to be handled with talk, not military muscle.

At home, the struggling economy has the president repackaging and trying to sell his tax cuts and other tax policies for the rich as a stimulus while belatedly speaking of extending unemployment benefits that were cut off for 780,000 jobless Americans on Dec. 28. To laments from fiscally strapped states, his response is more unfunded mandates for federal initiatives dumped on them.

Politically, meanwhile, Mr. Bush and congressional Republicans are still shaking off the hangover from Sen. Trent Lott's lapse into segregationist reveries, putting the party in a sweat over how to revive its ambitions to lure a much larger share of the African-American vote.

The one veneer the president has over all these post-election dilemmas is his continued stature as a "wartime president" in this curious period devoid of wartime sacrifice for most Americans.

The recent effort of Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York to revive the military draft as a means of reminding Americans that there's a war on is not likely to get anywhere. We prefer simply showing our patriotism in mufti by smartly saluting our wartime president and conducting business as usual at home, including more tax cuts for those who least need them and ever-higher deficits.

In other words, the same political invoking of the fight against terrorism that frustrated Democratic efforts to get voters to look homeward in November at rising unemployment, corruption in corporate America and chaos on Wall Street is still in play, even as Mr. Bush's policy abroad grows more chaotic.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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