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Axis of Insanity

Time to get out that old warped Phil Ochs record from the early ’70s. “I declare the war is over,” the late, great protest singer warbled. “It‘s o-o-o-ver. It’s ov-v-ver.”

Phil was off a bit. It took another year or so for the Vietnamese to open up their last cans of whup-ass before the whole shebang was, indeed, finally over. The Americans could have declared victory five years earlier and pulled out, and things would have been pretty much the same. But no such luck; the carnage kept grinding on and the body bags kept piling up.

Three decades later you would hope George W. Bush had learned the lesson (but then again it was only two years ago that he couldn‘t name the president of Pakistan, today our new best friend). And this time around it would be so much easier because we wouldn’t have to pretend. The U.S. really did win the war, or whatever it was, in Afghanistan.

We won -- that is, if our goal was to pursue the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, dismantle their staging areas and training grounds, and take down the obscurantist Taliban regime that offered them safe harbor and succor. Osama bin Laden may or may not have survived. Al Qaeda probably continues to maintain active cells in other countries. But the Islamo-fascists that murdered 3,000 civilians exactly five months ago got their comeuppance, and whatever operational capacity they had to repeat mass terror attacks has to have been greatly disrupted and reduced.

In other words, George, the war is o-o-over.

Readers of this column know I am not squeamish on this matter. I supported the American military response. It was the right thing to do. And I would support continued joint operations of U.S. forces with other local militaries to bust up any other al Qaeda nests. But those would be more on the scale of coordinated international police actions.

But this “Axis of Evil” line that Bush rolled out two weeks ago? No thanks, I‘m not buying it. The administration, from the first hours after September 11, had difficulty defining its military goals. Yet, the limited nature of the Afghan campaign seemed reassuring evidence that as the internal debate stretched out, the relative moderates within a23 the administration were holding in check the hard-line werewolves of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

No longer. By not wrapping up the military campaign now, the White House has redefined its goals so broadly as to render them indecipherable -- and, consequently, unworthy of any sensible political support. Bush is reverting to what might be called the Don Corleone strategy. By naming Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the new Axis of Evil, and all potential targets for an expanded war, he’s basically mimicking the movie Mafia don who said, “I‘m settling all the family’s business.” Bush is taking us to the mattresses against half the world.

I wish the Corleone parable were an original thought of mine. I cadged it, however, from writer David Reiff, who was in town earlier this week speaking at both USC and UCLA. Reiff had also supported the war. And he was now also alarmed by the way Bush was writing himself a blank check for what threatens to become an “endless war.”

Worse, Bush is radically dumbing down the language of international relations (one of the few intellectual skills that no doubt comes easy to him). It‘s not that Iraq is hostile to us (but not a threat, according to CIA Director George Tenet), or the Iranians cold (though they have quietly helped us out in Afghanistan) or the North Koreans at least ambivalent enough to negotiate with us. No, that’s far too much nuance and ambiguity. Now, according to Bush, they are all simply “terrorists.” And Evil. And on the scale, no less, of Hitler and Tojo -- which must come as some sort of news to the North Koreans, whose country was once occupied by, well, Tojo‘s troops.

Terrorism is the new rationale for anything and everything on this administration’s political wish list: from tax breaks for the wealthy, to taxpayer-financed bailouts for the airline and insurance companies, to expedited authority to negotiate corporate-friendly trade pacts, to whipping up an additional $48 billion military-spending care package for the Defense Department.

Let‘s hope that this new Axis of Evil snow job is just that -- empty political posturing rather than serious military planning. A concerted drive to remove Saddam Hussein from power would entail a U.S. military ground operation that would dwarf the Afghan campaign and that would put at serious risk America’s relations with its European allies. Even Robin Wright‘s piece this week in the L.A. Times detailing administration plans for attacking Iraq tasted like so much spoon-fed spin -- a politically motivated bluff. But who knows? Iran seems an even more unlikely target. A reform presidency has been gradually thawing relations with the U.S., and to attack now would be senseless. Hitting North Korea, for God knows what reason, and exposing 30,000 U.S. troops near the DMZ and key ally South Korea to retaliation seems like the most absurd of the three options.

With the Democrats still cowering for cover on the foreign-policy front, the most we can hope for is that Bush’s Don Corleone strategy goes no further than a domestic PR campaign aimed at keeping Republican poll numbers inflated heading toward the midterm elections.

If you were Bush, wouldn‘t you rather spend the next six months answering questions about North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il than about Enron‘s Kenny Lay?