When I was coming of age on the streets of New York City, there was a phrase we used to indicate an empty threat: selling wolf tickets. It was a rhetorical ploy bullies used to intimidate others and others used to imitate bullies.
I recalled that neighborhood tactic recently while observing America's latest foreign policy setbacks; in particular, our relations with North Korea have hit a downward spiral that seems to be spinning dangerously out of control.
But that crisis is just one example of why there is a lot about the Bush administration that recalls the power games of adolescence. The entire Bush Doctrine, in fact, seems designed by people who once bought too many wolf ticket but now sell them. There is a smug sense of vindication discernable in their style--a kind of "revenge-of-the-nerds" attitude.
It wouldn't be too far to see this as an extension of the Baby Boomers' disputes of the 1960s, in which the left's anti-military sentiments were contrasted with the "silent majority" that favored victory in Vietnam. Boomers now run the government, and they still run the left-leaning alliances of protest, so the disputes continue in another era.
One almost gets the feeling that the Bushies, particularly that group of neo-conservative ideologues clustered around the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, are motivated by adolescent frustrations to turn the tables of the bullies that once tormented them. But I don't have to resort to pop psychology to make the point that the Bush Doctrine of foreign policy has adopted selling wolf tickets as its primary purpose.
Like bullies in the 'hood, the U.S. has gained "respect" by demonstrating it will use overwhelming force to defeat even the weakest opponents; check Grenada, Panama, Libya, Afghanistan, etc. In that respect, the Bush Doctrine is not such a radical departure from standard U.S. procedure, even considering the trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In addition to terrifying and enraging the nation, those attacks also revealed the flip side of our overwhelming superiority: Our enemies consider asymmetric warfare, or what many call terrorism, legitimate. If we could kill their families from high-tech distances, why couldn't they do it from close-up, they argued?
If we could sell wolf tickets, so could they.
And that, of course, is the danger of such a strategy. The "axis of evil" rhetoric is a perfect example of that danger. By focusing our ire on that imaginary axis, for rhetorical purposes, President Bush has boxed this nation into a corner. Bush linked Iran and North Korea with Iraq, a nation he has targeted for regime change.
We all learned early in the 'hood that the bully's weakest target is also the most vulnerable. That would explain why Iraq is the first target on this axis. This apparently is a lesson also learned by Iran and most famously North Korea.
Last week, Pyongyang announced it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in response to what it called U.S. aggression. More chillingly it said U.S. policies of threat and domination would trigger a "third World War." Clearly, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il understands he has nothing to lose by standing up to a nation that has sold more wolf tickets than it can redeem.
A U.S. invasion of Iraq would merely serve as a recruitment tool for any axis member conscious enough to absorb the lessons of the day: The axis of evil is only as evil as it is weak. For, although North Korea has flagrantly and defiantly kicked out UN weapons inspectors, New Mexico governor and former UN official Bill Richardson gets to talk to its officials.
Iraq, on the other hand, has been conciliatory and welcoming but hundreds of thousands of young American men and women are massing on its borders, waiting for the boss' orders to go to war to increase the currency of American wolf tickets.
That currency will also include the value of Iraq's huge oil reserves, which, observers note, North Korea also lacks. Iran no doubt is watching events unfold very carefully, as the Islamic Republic does what it must to ensure it won't be the next target. While selling wolf tickets had some benefits back home, like deterring potential aggressors or gaining benefits through intimidation, it ultimately backfired.
After the bluff is called, wolf tickets are worthless.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2003, Chicago Tribune