From the Korean peninsula to the Red Sea, the Bush administration is absorbing new lessons daily in the difficulties of turning its bold pronouncements and overwhelming global power into workable policies that protect Americans and advance U.S. interests abroad.
Critics will be quick to portray the adjustments that are underway as reality overcoming ideology. They will not be totally wrong. But far more important is the dawning realization in Washington and in capitals around the world of "the inadequacy of existing laws of war in the era of new threats such as terrorism," in the words of one European analyst.
"A new set of rules governing the use of force" that "takes into account phenomena such as failed states" and the easy availability of highly destructive weapons must be devised, says Tomas Valasek, director of the Brussels office of the Center for Defense Information. The same basic thought was expressed the other day by a senior administration official in explaining the administration's recent, embarrassing climb-down on a shipment of North Korean Scud missiles to Yemen.
"We had no legal basis to seize the cargo. . . . We would like to have more tools to deal with this type of situation," the official said in defending the decision to release the interdicted missile shipment once Yemen claimed it.
The official refused to acknowledge that this punctilious respect for international law departed from the spirit or letter of President Bush's post- 9/11 warnings to other countries to be "with us" or feel the brunt of U.S. power.
"We will deal with threats" through preemptive action. "Yemen is not a threat. . . . Yemen is a good partner in the war on terrorism," the official said. Those remarks stand in sharp contrast to public and private descriptions earlier by this official and other senior officials of their concerns that Yemen was one of the failing or "ungoverned" states that could easily be used as bases for terrorists or become future Afghanistans.
Yemen is in fact a failing state that has done little on its own to curb the presence of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups on its soil. It has repeatedly rebuffed requests from the U.S. military for a freer hand on Yemeni territory in the war on terror. Manned combat aircraft were denied permission to enter Yemeni airspace to hunt for al Qaeda, bringing delays and other difficulties as armed drones have had to do the job. Small and thus far ineffective training missions have had to be handled covertly.
Yemen's regime is corrupt, unreliable and xenophobic to the nth degree. The fast release of secretly shipped North Korean missiles to that regime shows that in Yemen -- as in Pakistan -- even a pretense of cooperation permits counterterrorism to trump counterproliferation in the hierarchy of the Bush administration's urgent goals.
It also shows that the administration is vastly overpaying -- diplomatically, financially and politically -- for the limited cooperation it receives in fighting al Qaeda in Yemen and Pakistan. An inordinate fear that those two countries and others will swing over to supporting the extremists openly (instead of doing so covertly or through omission) drives the overcompensation as much as the practical necessities of the war on terror do. This is a misguided policy emphasis that is likely to be ineffective.
This may sound harsh in light of the genuine and evident difficulties the Pentagon and Bush's National Security Council face in waging a new kind of war in a radically changed international environment. Critics rarely grant the administration the credit it deserves for casting a spotlight on the deadly obsolescence and weakness of international bodies and global rules to deal with the modern threats of weapons of mass destruction and nihilistic terrorism.
If the speeches and doctrinal statements about preemption and counterproliferation shake the United Nations and other bodies out of their state of inaction and bring a new international legal architecture into being, the rhetoric will have been worth it.
But the administration risks falling into the easy option of actually believing what it says about Yemen, Pakistan and other illusionist regimes being good partners. Giving them excessive, unmonitored aid and a free pass politically can only backfire.
Bush is doing well against his enemies in al Qaeda and Iraq. He is doing okay with his friends in Europe. It is the in-betweens who seem to have him foxed.
Memory is never a substitute for looking it up. I taught myself that lesson yet again in my last column. I said Strom Thurmond lost the 1946 governor's race in South Carolina. He won. Thurmond lost in 1950, in his first bid for the U.S. Senate. Thanks to alert readers.