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U.S. Pivots on the Axis

Prepared by: Michael Moran
March 1, 2007


Back in 2002, shortly after George W. Bush coined the term “Axis of Evil” in his state of the union message, a hue and cry went up from some quarters about the wisdom of lighting so many new fires while the one being fought by U.S. troops in Afghanistan still burned so bright. Lawrence J. Korb, a former Reagan defense official who was then CFR's director of studies, argued “by broadening the objectives of the conflict to ‘rooting out evil’ in the world, Bush risks undermining his original goal and has taken on a war no nation can win.”

Many foreign policy experts on both sides of the American political fray long ago concluded the quarantine imposed on diplomatic contacts with nations Washington viewed as “rogues” had become counterproductive. In the past month, however, the opening of new, groundbreaking contacts with members of the infamous “Axis”—Iraq, Iran, North Korea—look like a climb down (Telegraph) to some, and not just those on the left. On North Korea, bilateral talks the administration promised it would never hold occurred in January. They produced a tentative deal on at least part of that nation’s nuclear arsenal in February that bore a distinct resemblance (NY Review of Books) to the deal the Clinton administration struck in 1994.

Elsewhere, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week nonchalantly announced she would attend a meeting of Iraq’s neighbors which will include the foreign ministers of Syria and Iran (FT). In another less-publicized shift in December, President Bush received a radical Shiite Iraqi political leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, at the White House, extending an official welcome to a politician trained and backed by Iran and in command of Iraq’s largest Shiite militia group.

All this has critics feeling vindicated. As Rupert Cornwall reports in Britain’s left-leaning Independent: “The very fact the United States has agreed to take part marks an abrupt shift in policy by Washington after months of refusing to have any truck with Tehran—despite strong urgings to that effect by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) and many Middle East policy experts.” Furious cries of “betrayal” emanate from some. “Two days after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man who has sworn to annihilate Israel, declared that Iran's nuclear program has 'no reverse gear,' the Bush administration has apparently gone into reverse itself,” fumed conservative essayist Daniel Johnson (NY Sun).

So, has the Bush administration “gone into reverse?” It argues the timing of its decision to suddenly engage in talks with these particular actors is important. In each case, an unnamed senior official tells the New York Times, sticking with a confrontational approach for so long—the surge in Iraq, moving a second carrier into Iran’s range, slapping financial sanctions on Pyongyang—has paid off. "The government of the United States now feels as though it has leverage," another senior administration official said.

In North Korea, at least, the flexibility has brought progress which seemed impossible until recently. This week, talks progressed to unfreeze (NYT) some North Korean assets in Macao banks.

At the same time, U.S. intelligence officials backed away from the certainty (WashPost) they once claimed about the extent of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program—the part, critics point out, that falls outside the tentative agreement reached in February. All this has friend and foe alike wondering whether America is turning on the "axis," or merely spinning.

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