The dictionary defines diplomacy as "the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations." But for too many State Department regulars, diplomacy is synonymous with being diplomatic, defined as "employing tact and conciliation in times of stress." Even in the face of tyranny and violence and terrorism, the suggestion that some regimes don't deserve to survive is too tactless to contemplate.
By themselves these bureaucrats are a nuisance. But when teamed with a like-minded press they become a formidable voice.
That's why White House speechwriters had to fight furiously for Ronald Reagan's demand to Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" in Berlin, and years before that, to identify the Soviet Union as "the focus of evil in the modern world." If President Reagan had listened to media advice and taken the "sophisticated" route throughout his presidency, the Soviet Union would probably still be enslaving, killing, and terrorizing millions.
But in May of 1988, much of the elite sounded like Phil Donahue on CNN, waxing about Reagan meeting with Gorbachev: "To go over there and see these people with these smiling faces, to see them as part of the human race. To understand it's not an evil empire and to reduce this ridiculous cold war tension." Reagan felt differently: It wasn't fully human to embrace an inhumane regime.
You'd think after all these years and the clarity of the post-Soviet experience, things might change. But when George W. Bush identified an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address, the media had the very same reaction: Some unsophisticated simpleton is mucking up the proper ways of diplomacy.
NBC's Andrea Mitchell noted that Colin Powell was more popular than Bush, and he was but playing "loyal soldier" on the embarrassing phrase, "the 'axis of evil' rhetoric not supported by most diplomats." When the President traveled to Asia, his tagalong press crew was breathing heavily. ABC's Terry Moran explained "the President and other top officials are trying to calm jittery nerves in Asia and dispel images of Mr. Bush as a dangerous warmonger." Substitute "Reagan" for "Bush" and we're right back to the 1980s.
Reporters standing at the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea couldn't take a moment to consider the possibility that to their north was a deranged communist cult of personality that literally starves its people while it seeks to build weapons of mass destruction. Several networks brought on Clintonite conciliators to complain of their damaged diplomatic feats of genius. "We know that with North Korea we can come to a verifiable agreement," Former State Department counselor Wendy Sherman told ABC viewers, "and I think it's important that we continue to try to do so."
To demonstrate the severity of this evil-dismissing trend, Media Research Center analysts reviewed all 37 evening news stories on ABC, CBS, and NBC discussing the "axis of evil" from January 30 (the day after the State of the Union speech) through Bush trip coverage on February 19. Only five of those stories (or 14 percent) focused on the identified countries - Iran, Iraq, and North Korea - while 73 percent of stories were dominated by negative reaction to Bush's concept. Even more telling: out of 19 "talking heads" invited by the networks to comment, 89 percent condemned Bush's statement. To be fair, these numbers exclude summarized views of Iranian, Iraqi, and North Korean officials, as well as administration explanations of "axis of evil" policy, but it doesn't alter the reality of the media's hostility.
Does that mean that media figures can't find evil in the world? No. They don't like the "e" word, which sounds awfully religious overseas - but it's so easy to find villains to demonize at home. So let's consider a short list of evil groups and individuals for which our journalistic sages consider by their outraged tones to be more evil than North Korea. It's not an accident that these priorities also line up with Clintonian thinking:
1. Tobacco companies.
4. Gun manufacturers.
5. The makers of genetically engineered taco shells.
6. Kenneth Starr.
7. Linda Tripp.
8. Catholic priests.
9. Global warming skeptics.
10. Anyone whose spine doesn't shiver at the mention of Hillary Clinton.
As in Ronald Reagan's case, the real measure of George W. Bush's rhetoric comes not in the overnight media reviews, but in how the world changes in the years to come. If tough talk calling evil by its rightful name helps curtail the terrorist threat and opens up these dictatorships to democracy, we may see another rerun of the Andrea Mitchells and Terry Morans wiping egg from their face. Will they be diplomatic when they're proven wrong? If past history is any measure, they'll probably miss the point again.