At one of the debates in the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush declared, “If we are an arrogant nation, they will resent us; but if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.” How long ago that was. Now, faced with a North Korea threatening nuclear war, he is anything but humble. Starting with the 2002 State of the Union address, which included the memorable but hardly humble designation of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” his administration has gone on to employ bellicose rhetoric with disturbing regularity. The administration’s defense posture requires pre-emptive strikes against would-be aggressors, the use of nuclear force, and the credo that no other nation can be allowed to build its military to threaten the United States.

Now we are faced with a North Korea—one of the members of the “axis of evil”—that has admitted to preparing fissile material. It has built and tested missiles that can come close to US soil; at the end of last year, it threw out U.N. inspectors of its nuclear facilities. We have refused to negotiate with this “rogue” state, but have called for using diplomacy, which implies using diplomatic language. The president, however, has described North Korea as an “evil, outlaw” regime and asserted that he “loathes” its leader, Kim Jong Il, who appears to be both paranoid and vengeful with little knowledge of the rest of the world.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has employed such “diplomatic” language in describing France and Germany as “old Europe” and testified to congress that “three or four countries” have indicated they wouldn’t participate in military action in Iraq or post-war rebuilding. “I believe Libya, Cuba and Germany are ones that have indicated they won’t help in any respect,” he said. Coupling Germany with Libya and Cuba infuriated that important NATO ally, while both France and Germany were riled by being characterized as the “old Europe.”

This month, Rumsfeld asserted that North Korea was ruled by a “terrorist regime” that had been “involved in things that are harmful to other countries.” Given his statement and the U.S. threat of moving bombers close to the Korean peninsula, even a non-paranoid leader might be concerned that his country was going to be attacked.

The United States has threatened North Korea with sanctions and a naval blockade. Pyongyang has in turn threatened war and a nuclear holocaust if economic sanctions are imposed. This isolated backward country fears that after the United States attacks and conquers the first country of the “axis of evil,” it will turn to another such country, North Korea. Given the rhetoric of the Bush Administration, this is far from an unreasonable fear. Certainly, given a little paranoia, “the Great Leader” could very well expect to be attacked as soon as Washington rids the world of Saddam Hussein.

If Kim Jong Il believes strongly that the United States will attempt regime change in North Korea, he may decide that the best defense is an offense. Attacking American troops in South Korea, which would mean invading that country, might appeal to him. His country is starving and South Korea has an abundance of food that could feed his people. If he were to overrun the South in a few days while the U.S. was occupied in the Middle East, he would be in a position to threaten America with a nuclear attack on Tokyo, should the U.S. respond militarily.

All of this is a nightmare, but not impossible. The other “axis of evil” country, Iran, must also be worried about future U.S. moves. Since we asserted the need to deal with Pyongyang by diplomacy, the religious leaders of Iran may believe that we attack countries that do not have nuclear weapons, such as Iraq, but use diplomacy with those that do, such as North Korea. Following that logic would make it imperative for the Iranians to develop a nuclear shield.

The bravo, the machismo, the exhibit of testosterone may be popular but it is leading to disaster. We must swallow our pride and sit down and talk with Kim Jong and his government. We must offer that poverty stricken state food aid, trade, a non-aggression treaty, and, finally, diplomatic recognition and then deliver on those items. The agreement with the Clinton Administration provided for recognition but it was never implemented, perhaps generating the North Korean cheating that started this whole downward spiral into madness.

Candidate George W. Bush was right; the president should listen to him. If we are to have peace in the world, we need a more humble foreign policy.