If you threaten armed conflict and provide a specific paradigm for engagement with America's enemies around the world, such as "pre-emption," that would have grave consequences. In fact, our allies, as well as potentially dangerous nations, will actually expect us to live up to what we say, and judge us accordingly.
The Bush administration, including its famed foreign policy team, has never seemed to understand this, for months putting forth pronouncements almost daily pitting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell on different sides of the Israel/United Nations/War on Terror policy divide.
Even worse, President George W. Bush's off-the-cuff political ramblings have often been, frankly, unpresidential. His post-9/11 proclamation that he wanted al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," or his justification for going after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein being that "after all tried to kill my dad," have made many in the foreign policy establishment cringe.
But apparently, this childish behavior did not suffice. The impulse of a rhetorical flourish was just too difficult to resist during last year's State of the Union address, when President Bush equally chastised all members of his "axis of evil" -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea. What our president apparently did not contemplate, however, was what he would do if Kim Jong Il, North Korea's non-benevolent despot, took offense to this classification, and reacted the way you might expect of a tyrannical regime injured by Bush's wannabe-John-Wayne rhetoric.
This has now become apparent as Bush's words and actions have led North Korea to kick out nuclear inspectors, threaten the United States at every turn and restart a dormant nuclear missile program.
Every day Bush backs down farther in the face of North Korean threats, proclaiming that only "diplomatic options" are on the table in Asia, while acting as if he'd like to ride a missile into downtown Baghdad waving his cowboy hat, is another day his credibility is further damaged internationally.
It is hard to surmise rationally what Kim Jong Il will do, because rationality is not exactly a quality he has displayed in the past. Imagine you are a dictator with few if any friends and are repeatedly insulted by the president of the United States. Bush even told journalist Bob Woodward, as reported in Woodward's book "Bush at War," that he "loathed" Kim Jong Il. You watch as his administration is repeatedly bombastic about attacking another member of his axis because they may be building a nuclear arsenal, even though he has no proof he is willing to offer.
Kim Jong Il on the other hand, already appears to have a few nukes.
The impetus is clear -- build up enough nukes so that it becomes a disincentive for Uncle Sam to attack. NOrth Korea has already proven you have missiles that can reach the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and that it can hit Japan or Taiwan before we can say missile defense. Now there is even talk that Los Angeles in not safe.
Not surprisingly, Iran, another charter member of the axis of evil, whom we know helped certain Taliban members escape through its territory during Operation Anaconda, has also gotten the message loud and clear. This past week President Mohamed Khatami of Iran informed us that his country was mining uranium for "nuclear energy only." But that is for another column.
So here is the Texas-sized conundrum George W. Bush has placed us in by calling the North Koreans "pygmies" and giving ill-advised speeches on evil axes, all of which have only shown that, in the words of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, he "talks a lot of trash and carries a small stick."
We cower weakly to North Korea, a true threat with its million-strong army and weapons of mass destruction, while pompously calling the -- apparently -- weaker Saddam kindergarten names. And all the while, our president refuses to acknowledge the hypocrisy of our absolutely inconsistent behavior toward two countries we threw into the same category only a year ago.
In a world where bin Laden is still issuing fatwas, Saudi Arabia admittedly gave funds to acquaintances of the 9/11 murderers and Syria provides logistics and training for Hezbollah, we are making Iraq, no proven short-term threat, our first priority. And now we have North Korea angry, too, and resuming a stalled nuclear program to make sure we never put them in the position in which Iraq currently finds itself.
Of course Bush says he will now "talk with North Korea" after isolating them and insulting them for two years. This talking thing, was that not the Clinton policy toward North Korea that the Republicans frequently criticized?
Words have meaning, and the world is listening. It would do our president well to learn that fact, if he wishes retain any allies in our war on terror and retain a shred of credibility in the global community.
(Cliff Schecter is a Democratic political consultant and commentator.)
("Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of global issues.)