Beliefnet

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Morally, president Bush's State of the Union address was compelling. Intellectually, it was incoherent. And unless that changes, all the tough talk will end in tears.

The press generally interpreted the speech as an effort to extend the war on terrorism to include Iran, North Korea, and above all Iraq. And that's just the way the administration wanted it to be interpreted. Over and over, the president implied that Tehran, Pyongyang, and Baghdad represent the natural next step in America's anti-terrorism struggle. Bush referred to "states like these, and their terrorist allies." He spoke of "terrorists and their state sponsors" and vowed not to leave "terror states unchecked."

But who exactly are North Korea's "terrorist allies"? According to the State Department's most recent "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report, North Korea's primary link to terrorism is its refusal to hand over some Japanese Communists who hijacked an airliner in 1970. Even Iraq, according to the report, "has not attempted an anti-Western terrorist attack since its failed plot to assassinate former President Bush in 1993 in Kuwait." To hear the State Department tell it, the most active terrorist group on Saddam Hussein's payroll is probably Mujahedin-e Khalq, an organization dedicated to overthrowing the government of Iran--Iraq's supposed partner in the "axis of evil."

The problem is that while the governments of Iran, North Korea, and Iraq may well be evil, they are not evil because they sponsor terrorism. Terrorism, according to the State Department, is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." North Korea and Iraq do lots of horrible things, but they are not the world's primary backers of "subnational groups" that attack "noncombatant targets." Had the president truly wanted to take the war on terrorism to its next logical destinations, Iraq and North Korea wouldn't have made the list; Syria and Lebanon would have.

Bush wasn't really proposing an extension of the war on terrorism at all; he was proposing a new war altogether. At first blush, the goal of that new war would seem to be stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but that's not exactly it. If that were its purpose, this administration would be talking tough to India and Pakistan; instead, it has actually lifted the sanctions the United States imposed after Islamabad tested nuclear weapons in May 1998. The administration's true goal is to stop really bad regimes from getting weapons of mass destruction, which is why the speech mentioned Iran, North Korea, and Iraq. That's not a bad goal at all. But to achieve it the Bush administration is going to have to take on some long-standing Republican assumptions.

First, it must deal with the supply of weapons of mass destruction as well as the demand. Judging from the State of the Union address, Bush's strategy seems to be to scare Tehran, Pyongyang, and Baghdad into abandoning their pursuit of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. With Saddam, that threat carries some weight--because the United States may attack if Iraq doesn't comply. But everyone knows the United States isn't going to war with North Korea or Iran. For one thing, if we attacked North Korea, we'd probably destroy our alliance with South Korea, whose president has staked his career on rapprochement with Pyongyang. Yes, the United States can impose sanctions. But we've imposed them for years, and North Korea and Iran have been steadily bolstering their arsenals nonetheless.

If the Bush administration is serious, it needs to go after supply. Since the cold war's end, the Russian defense ministry has reported 175 attempts to steal nuclear materials from its poorly guarded storehouses. In 1998 an employee at a Russian nuclear lab in Arzamas was arrested for trying to sell nuclear weapons designs to representatives of the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. And yet last year the Bush administration tried to cut the Department of Energy's budget for nuclear security in the former ussr (DOE handles the bulk of such efforts) by 32 percent. Congress restored the funding, but when it gave the administration $20 billion in discretionary spending for antiterrorism efforts after September 11, the Bushies didn't spend a dime on Russian nuclear safety. The administration's just-released budget is better, but it still leaves funding for the highly respected Nunn-Lugar program--which secures Russian uranium and bomb-grade plutonium against theft--essentially flat.

Installing security cameras in Russian warehouses and paying the salaries of Russian scientists sounds a lot like foreign aid, which is probably why the Bush administration hasn't made it a priority. But it's the vital corollary to the president's bellicose rhetoric. In fact, if the Bushies really want to keep uranium, long-range missiles, and poison gas from Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khamenei, they need to dramatically expand America's nuclear safeguard efforts to include Pakistan, whose nuclear materials and know-how are, if anything, even more vulnerable than Russia's. Unless the Bush administration begins taking this unglamorous preventative work seriously, all its high-pitched rhetoric won't impress anyone; in fact, it will start to grate.

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