Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (12/20/05)


Mesopotamia redux. Iraq was formerly called Mesopotamia, a name meaning "the land between two rivers," the Tigris and the Euphrates (corruptions of their Arabic names, Dijla and Furat). As a result of global warming at the end of the last Ice Age, the southern part of the country suffered a massive flood that became the basis for the Biblical story of the flood. Croton, too, lies between two rivers. The village, which may very well be the most litigious small village in Westchester, has run its legal expenses to seven figures, yet cannot seem to find the money to keep its railroad station parking lot from being inundated and totaling automobiles parked there when storms and high tides coincide. A blatant case of municipal indifference, when even a simple berm bulldozed along one edge of the parking lot would do the trick. The irony is that if this parking lot were in private ownership, the village would have long since come down upon its operator like a ton of bricks for not correcting this condition.

Three words that shook the world. No, they weren't the famous three little words "I love you." Far from it, they were three inflammatory words uttered by President George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address. In this epochal speech he identified Iraq, Iran and North Korea as constituting an "axis of evil." The U.S. "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," he added.

The genesis of the "axis of evil" expression is recounted in speechwriter David Frum's book The Right Man. It turns out that the phrase grew by accretion. In late December of 2001, chief Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson was doling out sections of the forthcoming State of the Union address to White House writers. Frum's assignment: "Can you sum up in a sentence or two our best case for going after Iraq?" Frum rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Pulling books off the shelves, he found what he wanted in the "Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis" of World War II.

"No country on Earth more closely resembled one of the old axis powers than present-day Iraq," Frum writes. But National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Stephen J. Hadley, her deputy, insisted that he expand it. "They wanted to take on Iran as well," Frum says, so that nation was added to create an "axis of hatred." A third country, North Korea, was then tacked on to avoid amplifying the suspicion in Muslim countries that the President's "war on terror" was really a war on Islam. He completed his portion of the speech and passed it to his boss. When Frum saw a draft of the entire speech, to his surprise his words were incorporated almost verbatim. "Gerson wanted to use the theological language that Bush has made his own since Sept. 11," he writes, "so 'axis of hatred' became 'axis of evil.'"

The glaring flaw in this phrase is that the three nations did not have a formal alliance such as existed between Germany, Italy and Japan. Moreover, in Iraq the regime was secular; in Iran it was fiercely religious. Far from being allies, the two countries were sworn enemies and had fought a mutually destructive war to a standstill. Instead of linking itself with other nations, North Korea, an anachronistic Communist dictatorship, was perhaps the most unaligned and isolated country in the world.

Bush read the draft of the speech and liked what he saw, making a few changes here and there. The day after the delivery of the State of the Union address, the controversial phrase "axis of evil" became the focus of comment. Experts acknowledged that it was a clever piece of speechwriting but--as foreign policy--it was incendiary and actually fanned the very fires it was intended to control.

"It was a speechwriter's dream and a policy-maker's nightmare," maintained Warren Christopher, Bill Clinton's Secretary of State. Tarring three countries with the same brush "makes it more difficult to deal with them on a different basis," he added.

"It was harmful both conceptually and operationally," observed Graham Allison, professor of government and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. "Conceptually, the 'axis' suggested a relationship that doesn't exist. More important, operationally, the reaction of the world and the North Korean debacle demonstrates that it was a mistake."

Assessing the speech, Richard K. Betts, director of Columbia University's Institute of War and Peace Studies, noted that the Administration's attention had long been on threats by "rogue nations," instead of the danger posed by al-Qaida. The speech "lumped together three countries that the people in the Administration were already thinking about in the same way," Betts said. "Everyone knew before that this was the way they thought but [the speech] did it in a pithy way that made it hard to ignore."

Then there was the use of the word "evil": "It's too heavy and radioactive a word," said Joseph Montville, director of the Preventive Diplomacy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, "You can't make a deal with evil. You can only kill it." In short, its message to the world was that the United States simply is not interested in negotiating.

Nor did the President improve relations with North Korea with his now-famous intemperate remark to Bob Woodward, "I loathe Kim Jong II," and his description of North Korea's ruler as a "pygmy" (he is only an inch taller than five feet). Tough talk may play well in Texas, but Dae-Sook Suh, an expert on Korea and professor of policy studies at the University of Hawaii, criticized Bush for "using this cowboy language in diplomatic circles," noting that in Asia such speech is considered rude, threatening and unseemly.

Domestically, the "axis of evil" speech laid the groundwork for the attack on Iraq the following year. Many believe it also helped to undermine Iran's moderate leaders and quashed its burgeoning democracy. To some, the speech only accelerated the nuclear confrontations we are now facing with that country and North Korea. It is frightening to think that this nation may be swaggering toward Armageddon because of a speechwriter's casual turn of phrase.

Spies in furs. There have been many bizarre schemes in the world of spying, but none so curious as a CIA experiment during the Cold War. In 1967, the CIA planned to implant listening devices in cats and then trained them to approach targets. The first cat implanted with such a device was released near a city park and directed to eavesdrop on two men sitting on a park bench. The experiment was a failure. On its way to the target the cat was run over by a taxi.

Sterling story. The following probably apocryphal tale is rapidly becoming the stuff of suburban legend. After receiving a wedding announcement, a local matron had a bright idea. She thought, "I have that monogrammed silver tray my parents gave us when we were married. We never use it. I'll just take it to a silversmith and have him remove our monogrammed initials and put theirs on. VoilĂ , an instant wedding present." So she took her tray to a silversmith and asked him to remove the initials and put another set on. He examined the tray with a jeweler's loupe, then shook his head and handed the tray back. "Lady," he told her, "you can only replace a monogram on a tray like this so many times!"

Question of the week. If running with scissors is dangerous, how come--according to the government--flying with them has now suddenly become safe?


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