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ROSA BROOKS

It's been a good week for the `axis of evil'

Meanwhile, Bush and his domestic authoritarians are taking a beating.

October 13, 2006|ROSA BROOKS

THERE WAS good news and bad news for authoritarians this week.

On the international front, the authoritarian regime in North Korea scored a major victory, testing a nuclear weapon in defiance of the United States and the world community. Sure, millions of North Koreans face potential famine, but the "Dear Leader" himself -- Kim Jong Il -- is sitting pretty.

With dissidents tucked away in prison and scarce food supplies doled out strictly on the basis of ideology and party loyalty, Kim has every reason to indulge in a bit of self-congratulation. Technologically, his nuclear test may have been only a partial success, but it sure did get the world's attention. As the Korean Central News Agency -- the "Dear Leader's" media mouthpiece -- reported on Monday, this is "truly a stirring time when all the people of the country are making a great leap forward in the building of a great, prosperous, powerful socialist nation."

Elsewhere in the "axis of evil," things are also looking good. With the world otherwise occupied, the authoritarian Iranian regime has continued to suppress dissent and advance its own nuclear program, and it's surely heartened by North Korea's "great leap forward."

Al Qaeda must be pleased by the news too. Because Kim has always made clear his willingness to sell lethal technologies to the highest bidder, Al Qaeda has another potential purveyor of nuclear weapons.

Even Saddam Hussein may be enjoying the week's news. After all, he's having a ball at his Baghdad trial, while the U.S. struggles to respond to the rising tide of violence in Iraq and is impotent against Iran and North Korea.

If the "axis of evil" keeps making great leaps forward, we may someday see an Asia where a nuclear North Korea is a major power-broker, a Middle East where a nuclear Iran is a major power-broker, and a destabilized world where terrorist groups hold states hostage through their possession of nuclear technologies.

Back on the domestic front, however, this week's news was a humiliating setback for the United States' homegrown authoritarians -- a.k.a. the Bush administration -- who once pledged to keep nuclear weapons away from the "axis of evil."

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration used a mix of tough sanctions and incentives to keep North Korea and Iran from becoming urgent threats to global security. Though imperfect, that approach produced results. Under President Clinton, for instance, the North Koreans produced no new plutonium, conducted no nuclear weapons tests and produced no new nuclear weapons.

But like Kim and the Iranian mullahs, our own "Dear Leader" -- President Bush -- prizes ideology and loyalty uber alles.

When he took office, he refused to have anything to do with the policies embraced by his predecessors. Instead of using diplomacy and a careful balance of carrots and sticks, Bush just blustered and threatened. Dividing the world into good and evil, black and white, Bush insisted that he wouldn't negotiate with evil. And he tolerated no internal dissent. When then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell praised Clinton for reining in North Korean nuclear ambitions, Bush sent out Vice President Dick Cheney to issue a public rebuke.

Today, with North Korea and Iran openly thumbing their noses at us, we're seeing the predictable result of Bush's rigid and simplistic policies.

Of course, Bush's foolish policies were supported by all too many Americans -- particularly those who share Bush's penchant for authoritarian-style political thinking. Data from the National Election Study suggest that, in recent years, those Americans with authoritarian personalities have flocked to the Republican Party.

Writing in the Democratic Strategist, Jonathan Weiler and Marc Hetherington note that "authoritarian personalities" are characterized by "a general moral, political and social intolerance, an aversion to ambiguity and a related desire for clear and unambiguous authority." Given their "antipathy toward complexity and moral ambiguity," authoritarians prefer "clear and simply stated solutions to vexing problems." And guess what? When you introduce voters with authoritarian personalities to Bush's "you're with us or you're against us" foreign policy, it's a match made in heaven!

But the real world is messy and ambiguous rather than black and white. In the real world, simplistic solutions that appeal to authoritarian personalities often backfire. Certainly, when it comes to the "axis of evil," the Bush administration's rigid, reductionist, good-versus-evil policies have only enhanced the power of our authoritarian foreign enemies.

Bottom line? This was a good week for foreign authoritarians, and a bad week for our homegrown ones.

But there's a silver lining for our local authoritarians. If the North Koreans or the Iranians ever do manage to take over the globe, our homegrown authoritarians may have to go through a brief period of reeducation. But after that, they're gonna fit right in.

*

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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