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The American Surprise

Author: Rachel Bronson, Former Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
March 1, 2002
Arabies TRENDS

As the American public settled into its armchairs preparing to hear the President’s first State of the Union address, it expected both good and bad news. The good news was to be about victories in the war against global terrorism and the successful process of regime transition in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority Hamid Karzai was in the audience. Also expected was the bad news about the current U.S. economic situation, the likely deficits and the need to dip into social security. What was not expected was a redirecting of attention to a menacing new threat dubbed the “axis of evil.”

According to President Bush, states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea “and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”

The State of the Union address played well. According to a CNN USA Today/ Gallup poll, 74% said they had a very positive reaction to the president’s speech, 20% were somewhat positive and only 5% had a negative reaction. These are extraordinary numbers.

However, reference to the “axis of evil” unnerved many. After the speech, one casual observer asked “what happened to Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and the Philippians, I thought they were our new concerns?” Even the experts were knocked off guard. “I was surprised,” said one NSC staffer when asked about his thoughts about the new term. America’s European allies were furious. Not one mention was made about European forces comprising the International Force in Afghanistan. NATO’s first use of article five seemed already to be forgotten.

Where Did This Come From?

Throughout the U.S. foreign policy establishment, speculation is rife about what led the President to adopt this new rhetoric. While some have speculated that he might have overplayed his hand, and might therefore back away from the term, early evidence suggests the contrary. At Eglin Air Force Base on February 4th, the President again used the phrase stating “terrorist states and terrorist allies are an axis of evil, seeking weapons of mass destruction. But I’ve put them on notice.”

One explanation cited for the lumping together of Iran, Iraq and North Korea is Israeli influence. According to analyst James Bill, the U.S. “views Iran through spectacles manufactured in Israel.” Israeli leaders have long considered Iran their principle threat. Immediately after the speech, according to the Isreali newspaper Ha’aretz, Israeli defense officials met to discuss Israel’s policy regarding Iranian threats and to prepare a message to be taken to Washington. In addition, U.S. officials generally agree with the Israeli assessment that the Karine-A, the arms ship destined for the Palestinian Authority and stopped by Israelis, originated in Iran.

Another explanation for the inclusion of Iran in the axis of evil, independent of the Israeli connection, is the Administration’s growing frustration over Iranian behavior regarding the war in Afghanistan and the war on terror. Intelligence coming out of Afghanistan suggests continued Iranian funding of proxies against the newly installed Afghan government. The President’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad has warned that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are “active in Afghanistan.” The Administration is also concerned about Iran’s harboring of al-Qa’eda fighters. Secretary Rumsfeld has recently charged that Iran is allowing “al Qa’eda and Taliban to move into Iran and find refuge.” Government officials acknowledge that “Iran is up to their eyeballs in this stuff.” According to Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief, the countries of the “axis of evil” were being signaled that “we’re watching you.”

But there is an even more compelling explanation. What ties all three of the regimes together is the Administration’s on-going concerns about ballistic missiles and their deep seeded belief in the need for a national missile defense system. No one is better versed in this than the Secretary of Defense. Before his appointment, Rumsfeld headed the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission which assessed the ballistic missile threat to the United States. One of the key findings of the report was that Russia and China were proliferating technologies dangerous to the United States to countries such as Iran and North Korea, and would proliferate to Iraq if sanctions were ever lifted. In the words of Steve Cambone, the staff director of the Rumsfeld Commission and currently the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, “North Korea and Iran were judged to be in a position where within five years of a decision to do so, they could pose a threat to the United States. Iraq they noted, might take 10. …But the idea of their being at 10 years was primarily driven by the fact that a sanctions regime and a monitoring regime was expected to be in place.” The report has been used by advocates of missile defense to defend their position.

Upon assuming office, Rumsfeld had staked out his position. National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice also came to office very skeptical about Iranian behavior. Even Vice President Dick Cheney, who before the election was on record as dissatisfied with sanctions against Iran, changed his mind upon assuming office and becoming privy to regular intelligence briefings.

The Problems

There are two real problems with the new “axis of evil.” First, there doesn’t appear to be an axis. An axis is a partnership or an alliance. Neither seems to exist between any two of the stated countries, let alone all three. Richard Butler, arms control expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and Executive Chairman of the U.N. Special Commission (1997 -1999), has stated that the term axis of evil “almost implies that in some way they are in cooperation with each other, and they are not.”

More worrisome however, is the marginalization of Iran at the very time when the talk of a war on Iraq is heating up. Washington is bursting with panels debating the pros and cons of an attack on Iraq. This time, unlike times past, the general consensus is that a major effort against Saddam Hussein must be undertaken. The question is no longer if to attack Iraq, but when. It is bad military planning to limit military options before a campaign. And yet, this is exactly what the President appears intent on doing. Iranian air space, intelligence and support would be very useful in any campaign against Iraq. Indeed, one of the lessons learned in Afghanistan was that the U.S. could work productively with Iran when interests overlapped, as they did there, and as they do in Iraq. The Administration broadcasted its lack of seriousness on Iraq by equating it with Iran.

We will have to see whether the Administration sticks with the rhetoric of axis of evil or not. But it has certainly shaken the U.S. foreign policy establishment. After September 11th, weak states such as Yemen, Somalia and Sudan had assumed center stage as they were areas of al-Qa’eda activity. Iraq too has been on Washington’s mind. But Iran and North Korea? Doesn’t D.C. have enough on its plate? Would the American public really have missed Iran and North Korea if the President had only referred to Iraq? Leaving Iran out of the speech would have sent a signal to both Iran and Iraq about the seriousness of American efforts against Iraq. In addition, it would not have changed the impressive polling numbers. After all, it was not what Americans had been expecting anyway.


Rachel Bronson is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.

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