The White House might have hit a hypocrisy high water mark yesterday with this comment from press secretary Tony Snow about the administration’s unwillingness to confront North Korea about its July 4th seven-missile surprise: “The U.S. response is we’re working with our allies to figure out how to try to get North Korea back to the table. There are attempts to try to describe this almost in breathless World War III terms. This is not such a situation.”


Hmm, “breathless World War III terms.” Where have we heard those terms used before? How about, “We cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Remember that one?


Four years ago when the administration was primed to attack Iraq, the action was billed as the first manifestation of a new doctrine of unilateralism - one enshrined in the 2002 National Security Strategy, written by Condoleezza Rice, which stated that the U.S. did not have to wait for the rest of the world to get on board when there was even the hint of an impending threat. Some saw this new aggressiveness as a bold and appropriate posture for our post-9/11 world; to others it seemed the height of folly. The point is that the White House declared a new era of quashing threats before they could endanger us, whether there was universal unanimity about the threat or not.


How different could this be from the verbal acrobatics we saw this week, with every member of the administration suddenly singing the praises of moderation and multilateralism? Granted, Kim Jong-Il’s muscle flexing was pretty scrawny as far as these things go (the missiles apparently rose and then promptly wobbled down into the ocean before they could gain any real distance). Still, what happened to Condi’s 2002 fighting words? Wasn’t this reaction - turning any critic who took the administration to task for its apparent timidity into a hasty, bellicose hysteric - proof that unilateralism had finally died, killed off by own strongest supporters?


We thought so.


But reading the analyses yesterday morning of the U.S.’s muted response to North Korea’s belligerence, we were a bit stunned that no one else really pointed out this major about-face - not just the inconsistency of it, but also just how the quagmire in Iraq has made mincemeat of this administration’s ideology and strategy.


It’s not that the national papers didn’t explore some big questions. They did. Just not this one. The New York Times, for example, wrote that “the bigger question” was “whether the president is prepared to leave office in 2009 without constraining an unpredictable dictator who boasts about having a nuclear arsenal.” But it left the question answered, and it never really took the next step, exploring the contrast with that other instance in which a dictator appeared to threaten the world.


The Washington Post thought the U.S. response “underscored how the administration has lost the initiative it once possessed on foreign policy in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, leaving at risk the central Bush aspiration of democracy-building around the world.” This gets closer to our central point, but it stops at the failure of democracy-building, leaving out the related question of the collapse of unilateralism as a strategy for spreading that good old American export. The Post then goes super wide (the piece is called “A Driven President Faces a World of Crisis”) with the obvious insight that this addition to the “long list of world problems [threatens] to cloud the closing years of the Bush administration.”


It’s hard to explain the reluctance to simply point out how divergent the language on North Korea is now from the histrionics concerning Iraq four years ago. The only guess we might venture to make is that the press as a whole largely bought in and simultaneously contributed to those “breathless World War III terms” back then (that “mushroom cloud” line came straight from a Judith Miller story). So acknowledging that there really is no qualitative difference between North Korea now and Iraq from back then - and if anything, the threat posed by Kim Jong-Il might be greater - might force journalists to revisit their own roles in hyping up Saddam’s danger. Maybe that’s a stretch. Still, it’s too bad there wasn’t just a little more historical memory on the part of those reporters exploring the North Korean crisis and the White House response.


It would have highlighted, for one thing, the strange evolution of the administration’s rhetoric. And it would have illustrated just how humbling the stalemate in Iraq has been — not just for the administration but for the press that covers it.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.