The Breakfast Table

Foreign Policy: Declaring Sweeping Doctrines vs. Attention to Detail


Back to Teddy Roosevelt. At the Minnesota State Fair in 1901, he said, “There is a homely adage which runs, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.’ ” Of course, Teddy never really lived by that, but it was sound advice—and George W. Bush seems to have done quite the opposite on Tuesday night. The question is, was his bellicose rhetoric mere posturing or real policy change? The papers today are filled with anonymous Bush administration officials scurrying away from a literal interpretation of the Evil Axis doctrine—and pundits, Safire in the Times and Kristol in the Post, engaged in Hearstian wishful thinking: WAR! WAR! WAR! Given my well-known proclivities toward anonymity, I tend to side with the Bush administration officials—though I’d really like to know their provenance: State, Defense, NSC, the Residence? Can’t we journalists be a little more specific about our unnamed sources? But these officials do make a clear separation: Iraq stands well above Iran and North Korea in the hierarchy of infamy. I agree. But why didn’t Bush say so? Why the trinitarian balance? The kindest interpretation is that the president merely wanted to warn all these guys that we’re watching them. But they already knew that. And I wonder, is any sort of “stick” really lurking, or just the hope that hot words will scare the bejesus out of the Axis? We’re not going to war with North Korea or Iran. In the former case, South Korea simply wouldn’t have it, and we can’t do it without them. As for Iran, I’ve just returned from there and must save the details for The New Yorker. But trust me: We’re not going to war with those guys, either.

Which leaves Saddam. Good old Saddam. On the night before the Gulf War began, I was in Israel, talking to a “national security expert” who fearlessly predicted that Saddam would not arm his Scuds with poison gas to attack Israel. Why not? “Because he knows that we have the ultimate deterrent capability.” Which is to say, of course, The Bomb. If we crank up our mighty arsenal with the clear purpose of taking Saddam out—as opposed to merely evicting him from Kuwait—he’ll be less reluctant to douse Israel with whatever he’s got. Are you ready for that? I’m not a “national security expert,” so I don’t know if there’s a more subtle way of going after him. Assassination seems the most prudent course, but there’s a reason why the CIA mistrusts the Iraqi opposition groups. And, as I said yesterday, there’s a reason why the tacit American policy has been to keep Saddam in power: the likelihood of regional chaos if he goes.

I am sure the Armchair Warriors will accuse me of hand-wringing. But, as I get older, I tend to place more faith in attention to detail than to the pronunciation of doctrine. One of the great strengths of Clinton’s foreign policy was his unwillingness to declare some sweeping doctrine; the great weakness of his foreign policy was an inability to pay sustained, detailed attention to the nuances and complexities overseas. Until Tuesday, Bush had shown a very clear head about priorities and a mature appreciation of the daunting complexities of this campaign. Now I’m not so sure. We can all agree on the desirability of ridding the world of powerful maniacs, but it should be done quietly, prudently, without recourse to overheated and inaccurate chest-pounding.