When President Bush named Iraq, Iran and North Korea "the axis of evil," he created a furor. Many of America's key allies decried the designation as dangerously belligerent. Bush supporters applauded it for its frankness and moral clarity.
Even as they differed on its merits, however, critics and supporters agreed on a core issue: that by making this speech, Bush had committed the United States to ousting the regimes in Tehran, Baghdad and Pyongyang. But did Bush really commit the United States to a fundamentally different foreign policy when he warned of the "grave and growing danger" that those regimes present? For what the president did not say in the January speech is what he planned to do "as peril draws closer and closer."
He certainly said nothing about overthrowing regimes. While there is support for this option within the administration, ever since the speech, key officials have repeatedly said that no decisions on the use of force have been made.
As Vice President Dick Cheney said last week at the end of an 11-day trip through the Middle East: "There's been great press speculation about the possibility of a military action against Iraq. I have said repeatedly throughout the course of my travels in response to those questions: No such decision's been made." And in the case of Iran and North Korea, the president and his advisers have explicitly ruled out pre-emptive military action.
The real message of the "axis of evil" speech seems to have been that the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by those countries is unacceptable and that we would be willing to use military force— if necessary— to stop this. As Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary and the administration's chief hawk, recently told Fox News, Bush "basically said, 'Look, we can't continue living with that. We've sort of accepted it as a necessary evil. It's an unnecessary evil.' "
All of which raises two important questions. First, there is nothing new in Iran, Iraq and North Korea seeking to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, so why is the status quo no longer acceptable? Second, if the status quo must be changed, is overturning governments the best way to go about it, or are there better options available?
The governments of Iraq, North Korea and Iran have little to recommend them. Iraq has suffered grievously under Saddam Hussein's rule. North Korea is a living manifestation of George Orwell's "1984," with more than 1 million North Koreans starving to death in the 1990s and 150,000 others in concentration camps. Things are better in Iran only by comparison. Reformists have decisively won four elections in the past five years, but they have failed to wrest control of the government from the conservative ayatollahs who wield the real power in Iran.
As badly as these regimes rule, what makes them so dangerous is their energetic pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq has tried for a quarter of a century to build a nuclear weapon, and it would have the bomb by now if Israel had not destroyed its Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and the gulf war a decade later hadn't led to the introduction of United Nations weapons inspectors. North Korea is believed to have produced enough fissile material for one or two bombs. Iran's nuclear weapons program is shrouded in secrecy but known to be active.
All three nations also have germ- and gas-warfare programs, and both Iraq and Iran have used chemical weapons. Pyongyang has taken the lead in developing the ability to deliver these weapons by long-range missiles and is sharing its technology with anyone willing to pay.
None of this is new, of course. So what has changed to make these three regimes a top priority for U.S. foreign policy?
Two things. The first was Sept. 11. Although we have no evidence linking the regimes to the attacks, the terrorist attack made us much more aware of our vulnerability. Our tolerance for risk has diminished— and these regimes, armed with dangerous weapons and capable of making common cause with terrorist groups that would do us harm, represent an intolerable risk.
Second, America's military successes in Afghanistan have convinced many that we can do something about this risk. We need not wait until we are attacked again before we act. America has always had the ability to act pre-emptively and unilaterally— but after Sept. 11 it might finally have the will, as well.
What is effective?
Yet what is the most effective way to change the status quo in favor of American interests? The option that has received the most attention is overthrowing governments. The logic of this argument is simple: If we oust evil regimes we have a chance to replace them with regimes that will forgo weapons of mass destruction. Anything less won't work. Negotiated agreements, even ones that provide for unfettered inspections, are merely obstacles that unscrupulous rulers will circumvent.
But overturning regimes comes at great cost— and with uncertain results. Are we truly prepared to oust all three regimes? Can we guarantee that their successors will not also seek to retain or develop mass destruction weapons?
Given questions like these, it is not surprising that the administration has made it clear it has no intention of attacking Iran or North Korea. Iran has a population of 70 million, roughly three times that of Iraq. Its government grossly disserves its people yet enjoys considerable legitimacy. North Korea is impoverished, but it also has a large, well-equipped military. Its artillery can hit Seoul, effectively holding the South Korean capital hostage. During his trip to Seoul last month, Bush acknowledged as much: "We have no intention of invading North Korea."
That leaves Iraq, where many Bush administration officials are eager to complete the unfinished business of the gulf war. But as Cheney learned during his recent Middle East trip, that enthusiasm is not shared by much of the Arab world.
Every one of his Arab interlocutors told Cheney that the escalating conflict between Israelis and Palestinians made it impossible to consider any kind of military action. Even then, even our closest allies in the region stated publicly that such action by the United States would be mistaken. As Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah told ABC News on March 15: "I do not believe it is in the United States' interests, or the interest of the region, or the world's interest, to do so. And I don't believe it will achieve the desired result."
Overthrowing regimes is not the only option. The alternative is to focus American diplomatic, economic and political might as well as the threat of force squarely on what worries us the most, the weapons themselves.
The specific tactics the United States would need to employ will vary among the members of the "axis of evil." Dealing with Iran will require reducing the threat that its neighbor Iraq poses, as well as engaging moderate forces on steps they can take to reduce our concerns. Meanwhile, we can use the provisions of international treaties, including the right to conduct special or challenge inspections, to investigate sites that may be illegally engaged in the development of nuclear or chemical weapons.
The key to dealing with North Korea is making sure that the 1994 Agreed Framework remains in effect. That required Pyongyang to shut down its nuclear reactors, to seal a reprocessing factory designed for manufacturing weapons-grade plutonium and, ultimately, to come clean on its past nuclear activities. Equally important is reviving the promising talks the Clinton administration initiated on ending North Korea's missile programs and technology exports.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration appears bent on confrontation rather than engagement with Pyongyang. Last year, it suspended the missile talks and then placed conditions on their resumption that were clearly unacceptable to North Korea. And just last week, the administration decided it would not certify Pyongyang's compliance— even though there was no evidence of a violation.
With active engagement and an invasion off the table, what other option does the administration have for addressing what it sees as an unacceptable threat?
Although the threat of force appears counterproductive in the case of Iran and North Korea, it may be the key to success in the case of Iraq. More than 10 years of economic sanctions, negotiations and diplomatic activity have failed to stem Saddam's appetite for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
His neck or his weapons
But if he were forced to choose between his weapons and his own neck, he may choose his neck. United Nations inspectors would have to be allowed in. They would have to have complete and unfettered access. Any weapons or production facilities would have to be destroyed. And a long-term monitoring system of suspect sites would have to be in place to give the international community confidence Iraq remained effectively disarmed.
In spotlighting an "axis of evil," Bush has usefully reminded the world of the dangers and risks posed by the spread of weapons of mass destruction. After Sept. 11— and with our military success in Afghanistan— America now has the credibility to work with others to eliminate this threat.