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Bush Confounded by the 'Unacceptable'

North Korea's planned firing of a missile was unacceptable, Bush said June 29; after Pyongyang fired several missiles July 4, Bush again labeled the action unacceptable on July 7 and July 10. He also deemed unacceptable the country's starving of its people, its use of concentration camps and its claimed nuclear test.

Using such a categorical term is not that surprising after a policy setback, according to Steven Kull, a political psychologist who directs the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes. Some people deal with failures, Kull said, "by intensifying an authoritarian posture and insisting that their preferences are equivalent to a moral imperative."

Asked at a news conference on Wednesday whether Washington risks looking feckless in making such categorical statements without taking decisive action, Bush said: "It's very important for the American people and North Korea to understand that that statement still stands. . . . I know this sounds [like] just saying it over and over again, but it's -- rhetoric and actions are all aimed at convincing others" to join Washington's effort to impede that country's weapons ambitions.

Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton -- often pilloried by Republicans as irresolute -- also labeled many events "unacceptable" or "not acceptable," particularly after the political tables turned against him. When Democrats controlled Congress in 1994, for example, he used those terms four times, according to transcripts of his public comments. In 1995, after his party lost control of both houses, Clinton used the terms 20 times; his annual usages thereafter fluctuated between eight and 22, but they totaled only 86 percent of Bush's usage in a comparable six-year period.

Clinton's peeves were different from Bush's, and a quarter of his uses of the "unacceptable" label after 2004 were aimed at providing leverage in his budget battles with the Republican-led Congress. Clinton also used the label in denouncing poverty, crime, discrimination against women, inadequate health care, school violence, racial disparities and the actions of medical insurance companies. Abroad, he labeled as unacceptable the behavior of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein unacceptable on four occasions.

Moisés Naím, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, said there is a relationship between "how strident and extreme" the language of many leaders is and how limited their options are. For Bush, Naím said, "this comes at a time when the world is convinced he is weaker than ever."

Many foreigners think the United States is losing Iraq and are no longer in awe of U.S. military might, Naím said, and at home, Bush is so weak that Republican candidates are wary of appearing with him. "The world has noticed," Naím said. "What is happening is that a lot that was deemed unacceptable [by Bush] now has become normal and tolerable."

Bush's proclamations are not the only rhetorical evidence of his mounting frustrations. One of his favorite verbal tics has long been to instruct audiences bluntly to "listen" to what he is about to say, as in "Listen, America is respected" (Aug. 30) or "Listen, this economy is good" (May 24). This year, he made that request more often than he did in a comparable portion of 2005, a sign that he hasn't given up hope it might work.

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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