Saturday, October 02, 2004


By DANIEL HENNINGER,,SB109659336051633422,00.html


The deadline imperatives of national newspaper production leave me debate-less, not good for a columnist who gets paid for Friday morning quarterbacking. I wrote these words and then went home to consume debate popcorn and politics like everyone else.

Does it matter? By now the presidential debates heave into the campaign like ponderous, overblown blimps. The coverage of the campaigns has become increasingly personal, sort of like reality TV, celebrifying the candidates and in the process devaluing their connection to the two parties they represent. In a sense, all presidential candidates now run as "independents."

Democratic nominees like Bill Clinton or John Kerry haven't resisted being decoupled from the party because the core Democratic base that nominates them is too liberal to win a general election. The presidency, however, isn't a made-for-TV movie. In office, a President is unavoidably the product of the ideas and sentiments his party accretes over time.

Iraq and what now to do about it is an issue whose execution in office, by the next government, transcends whatever Tom, Dick or moderating Harry said about it last night. Running for President is a bizarre obsession. Running the country is a real job. A Kerry administration won't -- can't -- cut and run from Iraq. The Kerry ship of state, tillered by old hands from previous Democratic governments, would manage its Iraqi inheritance, wind it down and deal with to the next crisis. Let's, as the famous Sorosified Web site says, move on.

Think about the next crisis and you'll have a better idea which post-campaign reality you'll want in the Oval Office. The next crisis, already in view, is a madman or a mad mullah with a nuclear bomb. It's North Korea and Iran. And on the nuclear runway sit Syria, Egypt and perhaps Saudi Arabia. You don't need a staged debate to decide whether you want a Republican or Democrat dealing with that problem. Ever since Reagan, the parties have divided over confronting the nuclear threat. You have a choice.

The outlines of this hardest of all policy issues were evident earlier this week at a conference on nuclear oversight held at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. John Bolton, the State Department's point man on proliferation, opened by saying that the Bush administration wants the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop temporizing over Iran and refer the problem of its nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council.

He noted that it is technically possible for Iran to remain in compliance with the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, then suddenly renounce the NPT and "breakout" with its own bomb. Rather than wait for that moment, the administration wants a Security Council referral, which would elevate the problem politically.

Speaking from the Democratic side of the divide, the Carnegie Endowment's Joseph Cirincione defended the IAEA's inspection process and said the agency isn't referring Iran to the Security Council because the Bush administration's handling of Iraq's WMD created a problem of "trust and credibility."

Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control reduced the status quo to three lines: "You cannot verify a lie. You cannot successfully inspect a country that lies. You come to a dead end." But it is only the policymakers of the civilized world who come to the dead end. Beyond the dead end and deep inside the dark, trail-less forest, the Irans and North Koreas of the world are assembling a bomb and the missiles to deliver it. Current "policy" won't stop them. What will?

The Bush administration filed its answer two Septembers ago with the National Security Strategy, a 31-page document whose most famous word was "preemption." It said, "In an age where the enemies of civilization openly and actively seek the world's most destructive technologies, the United States cannot remain idle while dangers gather."

Preemption now is wholly associated with the Iraq war. But whether to act preemptively again -- or not -- is almost certain to re-emerge over the next four years with another country that we know but cannot verify is building a nuclear weapon.

Just this week in an interview with Fox's Bill O'Reilly, Mr. Bush said about Iran's bomb program, "We've made it clear, our position is that they won't have a nuclear weapon." Diplomacy, he said, was the first option, but "all options are on the table."

The Democrats? The Kerry campaign's published statement on Iran proposes "a global effort" which would buy back Iran's spent nuclear fuel. "If Iran does not accept this offer, their true motivations will be clear." He then would "push" the IAEA to "to discern the full extent of Iran's nuclear program." And then the statement's final sentence: "If this process fails, we must lead the effort to ensure that the IAEA takes this issue to the Security Council for action." And after that, what?

Before 9/11, many Americans were content not to think about such stark and awful questions, which seemed distant. Those days are gone. We live in a country and at a time when we are obliged both to produce an answer and live as a target.

If the world arrives at diplomacy's dead end, will George Bush and a Republican government project military power to stop a rogue nation from going nuclear? Most likely.

Mr. Kerry and the Democrats? It is most unlikely. Or it will come too late.

During the Cold War, faced with thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads, Democrats (and some Republicans) excused many Soviet treaty violations, believing confrontation to be catastrophic and therefore infeasible. Ronald Reagan broke that mindset for Republicans; in December 2001 President Bush renounced the 1972 ABM treaty to proceed with deployment of a missile-defense system.

Against this, I believe an abhorrence of significant military confrontation with a nuclear power has become hard-wired into the Democratic party, even against a nation building a single bomb. This is consensus party policy, what they believe is right. They will walk to the dead end, inside the Security Council. Rather than act, they will talk. And they will talk. And if they act, it won't matter.

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