In dealing with ornery nations at the dawn of the 20th century, President Teddy Roosevelt believed in the adage, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." What does George W. Bush, first president of the 21st century, believe? "Talk tough and carry a small stick?"
It's certainly not "zero tolerance." That was the policy Bush proclaimed earlier this week for any "material breach" of United Nations' resolutions by Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. No sooner were the words out of Bush's mouth than Iraqi gunners began repeated attacks on U.S. and British aircraft patrolling Iraq's "no fly" zones.
That constituted a clear act of war, never mind the U.N. resolution. And, indeed, White House officials defined the attacks as a "material breach" of the resolution, opening the option for a "zero tolerance" response.
When asked about that, supposed tough-guy Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters, "It seems to me that what will happen is a pattern of behavior will evolve, and then people (meaning the U.N. Security Council) will make judgments with respect to it."
Waiting for a "pattern" suggests enduring repeated "material breaches" before striking back. That's a far cry from "zero tolerance," which suggests just one Iraqi "material breach" would trigger all-out war with the U.S. and its allies - with or without another Security Council vote. Besides, don't repeated attacks on allied aircraft, which have been going on for several days, already amount to a pattern of breaches?
Maybe so, says a White House spokesman, but there's no support on the Security Council to get tough on the Iraqis for any "material breach" unless it's lack of cooperation with arms inspectors. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan echoed that sentiment, saying the anti-aircraft attacks were not viewed as a violation of the U.N. resolution.
The Bush administration seems to be accepting the U.N. Security Council's contention that Iraq should be given a pass on "material breaches" unless a "pattern" develops of obstructing arms inspections. Whatever else it is, that is not "zero tolerance." Such waffling on this issue can only damage U.S. credibility - and put our servicemen in greater danger than they already are.