The ’Axis of Evil’: Warren Bass

The ’Axis of Evil’: Warren Bass

March 4, 2002 6:41 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

On January 29 in his first State of the Union address, President Bush described Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil” that needed to be targeted by the United States, drawing criticism from many countries, including U.S. allies.

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Does this mean the U.S. war on terrorism will eventually move to Iran, Iraq or North Korea? Will Bush’s statement discourage moderates in Iran from seeking better relations with the West?

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism


Discuss the repercussions of the “axis of evil” phrase and the U.S. war on terrorism with Warren Bass, Director of Special Projects/Terrorism Program and Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Bass specializes in the Middle East and terrorism, and edits the Council’s “Terrorism: Questions & Answers” website.

Comment from Warren Bass: Good afternoon, all, and thanks for coming.

Brussels, Belgium: How do you differentiate the Foreign Policies of the US and the EU?

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Warren Bass: As to the first question—well, almost by definition, the European Union’s foreign policy is multilateral. It’s got to weigh the views of all its members. The US gets to follow its own lights.

With President Bush’s “axis of evil” comments, you also saw the EU get very, very jittery about an America that might be willing to go it alone.

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Colorado Springs, CO: To what extent is Israel driving the agenda against Iran and Iraq?

Warren Bass: Not that much.

Israel’s not really in the coalition, except for some intelligence-sharing. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been pushing the idea that Iran ought to be Public Enemy #1, but for now, in the mind of the White House, that honor pretty clearly is going to Iraq—the nastiest of the axis-of-evil states.

Now if the US really does try to take Saddam Hussein out, then Israel is running some very considerable risks—above all, that it’ll get pelted with Scud missiles tipped with chemical or biological warheads. So a smart anti-Saddam policy has to take into account the risks that Saddam could strike Israel again, as he did during the 1991 Gulf War.

But in general, it’s not Israel that’s driving the Bush administration’s agenda; that agenda’s driven by the president’s team’s own views of US interests.

Columbus Ohio: I am deeply concerned that such a broad based perspective as President Bush presents in his “Axis of Evil” risks alienating more moderate nations and groups. Would it not be better to pinpoint select nations and groups and specifically identify the threats they present to the US and to the world? Could not we anticipate a broader international support with a more specifically focused perspective?

Warren Bass: As for pinpointing select nations and identifying the threat—that WAS what the axis of evil remarks did. Bush named names, singling out Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

Now there’s a question about whether these countries are threats to the US because they sponsor terrorism, or because they are trying to get doomsday weapons—germs, gases, and nukes—that we’d hate to see in the hands of al-Qaeda and company. Iran sponsors a lot of terrorism; Iraq and North Korea have been moving out of the terrorist business to at least some degree. But all three are big proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.

So the threats are pretty clear, too. As for broader international support—well, I’ve got no problem with letting other leaders feel a bit challenged out of the gate. Exactly why wouldn’t other leaders want Saddam to go? Sometimes there’s something to be said for having someone else on the hot seat.

Lady Lake, Florida: It is a given that Bush/Cheney is using “Smoke and Mirrors” to fight an “Axis of Evil,” to divert attention from the economy and slide huge tax cuts for big business and their other Enron-like followers. My question: “Can they keep it up until election day in 2004?”

Warren Bass: I’m tempted not to answer, but still—how is responding to 9/11 “smoke and mirrors?”

Disagree all you want with the administration on its economic policies, its tax cuts, and its Enron shenanigans. But there’s a serious foreign policy crisis afoot out there, too. You can disagree with how they’re handling it—that’s democracy, and that’s great—but it’s a little jarring to me to hear someone argue there’s no crisis at all.

Seoul, Korea: What is the US up to? This could make the south and the north in bad shape...War is not peace.

Warren Bass: With Bush on his way to South Korea this week, plenty of people in Seoul and elsewhere are wondering about this. Kim Dae Jung of South Korea has been following a “sunshine policy” of trying to reach out to North Korea, and the Bush administration has been cutting him off at the knees.

I think most analysts found North Korea’s inclusion on the “axis of evil” list the most baffling of the three. They’ve been more or less out of the terrorism business for years, and their politics—the world’s last Stalinist dictatorship—are pretty different from the Ba’athist tyranny of Saddam’s Iraq and the muddled theocracy of Iran.

But with the axis of evil remarks, a lot of people—like the questioner—are worried that Bush is heating things up too much. It’ll be interesting to see how he parses it all when he’s in Seoul.

Orlando, Florida: Can we force the world to live like we think it should or will we have to accept it as it is?

Warren Bass: Neither.

Grand Rapids, Mich: why has there been no talk about the P.A., Hamas or IRA?

Warren Bass: There’s been plenty, especially about the PA (the Palestinian Authority, the autonomous government Yasir Arafat runs in about 40% of the West Bank and Gaza, including its major cities) and Hamas (the biggest Palestinian Islamist terror group). In fact, Bush mentioned Hamas by name in the “axis of evil” State of the Union. And US diplomats have spent a lot of time thinking through how the Israeli-Palestinian mess may complicate US coalition-building efforts.

As for the IRA, they’re deep into a rocky peace process of their own. Some more attention to them might encourage them to permanently and lastingly “decommission” their weapons—a fancy way of saying disarm. That’d be great for Northern Ireland.

Banning, California: Doesn’t it hurt the long term of the United States as the beacon of justice and freedom to have a grossly obvious double standard as far as who can possess the so called weapons of mass destruction and who can’t? For instance, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, France, and the UK have all sorts of weapons of mass destruction and yet they’re not considered part of an axis of evil. If weapons of mass destruction are bad, why not call them bad everywhere? Is it that it’s easier to bully those 3 underdeveloped countries instead of China, Russia, or U.K.?

Warren Bass: Well, it certainly drives India crazy—their foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, calls this sort of thing “nuclear apartheid.”

But let’s be clear here: Iraq has used its chemical weapons to gas its own Kurdish citizens and to gas Iranian soldiers during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. THAT’s why it gets singled out. And Iran is the world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism; that’s why it gets singled out. And North Korea helps sell missile technology to Iran and other worrisome states; that’s why it gets singled out.

Quibble with the axis bit, but the comment here about “bully” behavior makes me wonder if you shouldn’t think a bit more about whether those three countries have really done some evil things. I don’t see how one could argue otherwise.

If it’s a double standard to say it’s OK for France to have nukes and not Iraq, well, guilty as charged. But France has been a mite more responsible with ’em, wouldn’t you say?

Yes, China and Russia will hold onto their weapons of mass destruction; that’s what comes with being a big power. But let’s remember that the US has also basically said it’s OK with two big developing world powers—India and Pakistan—having nukes. So maybe this is less about our hypocrisy and more about Iran, Iraq, and North Korea’s bad behavior.

Columbus, Ohio: The phrase “AXIS OF EVIL” seems recklessly irresponsible to me. Doesn’t it polarize our nations at a time when we need to work together to fight terrorism? How can we understand terrorism unless we make an effort to understand the history and religious fundamentalism out of which it comes?

Warren Bass: Well, Bush’s policy is deliberately polarizing: one camp of states who are “with us” fighting terrorism, another camp of states who are “against us” and with the bin Ladens of the world. Why shouldn’t that choice be a no-brainer?

I’m all for understanding the history. That’s why what makes me uncomfortable about “axis of evil” isn’t the evil bit, it’s the axis. Iran and Iraq killed more than a million people in their eight-year war. Some axis, that. In fact, one of the biggest terrorist groups Iraq still actively supports today is a group called Mujahidin-e-Khalq, whose major goal is—toppling the Iranian government.

Evil, yes. Axis, not so much.

Grand Rapids, Mich: could we be making a “axis of evil” by calling them that? Groups never really happen, they are formed from necessity in their view.

Warren Bass: Well, I’d like to offer Iran in particular some carrots as well as some sticks. The trick with Iran is to foster the reformists there and see if they’ll get rid of the crazies for us—worth a shot, at least. But the Iran-Iraq enmity runs pretty deep; it’ll take more than one snappy sound bite to push those two back together.

Austin, TX: Doesn’t Bush’s Axis of Evil statement do more to aggravate hatred towards the US? Almost every other country in the world except for maybe Great Britain felt that that statement was counter-productive.

Warren Bass: It certainly didn’t play well in Europe. But it’s designed to put some menacing regimes on notice, and it sure got their attention. That’s at least potentially useful. As I’ve said, the “axis” part of the remark seems to me seriously overdone. But at least some of the complaints also strike me as excessive. There’s plenty of people who’ve got gripes with US policy. But after suffering the biggest terrorist attack in history, you’d like to see America’s friends standing up and being counted.

Phoenix, Arizona: Why does the press call murderers and terrorists in the Middle East “militants” and other benign terms?

Warren Bass: “The press” is a big group... so it’s hard for me, as someone who’s worked in journalism pretty proudly for some years, to make the sweeping generalization. I’m all for calling terrorists terrorists, and some news organizations—notoriously, Reuters—have managed to look pretty foolish by taking a dive on the issue.

But the definition’s pretty tough to get. We’ve got a good one on the website I edit,, on the pieces about an introduction to terrorism. That might clear up a bit more of this for you.

Kenner, Louisiana: I lived in South Korea for many years in the 90’s. The hearts of the people want to reunify with North Korea. I know both South Korea and North Korea have recently made some head way in reunifying. Does not a statement like President Bush made retard such progress between the two countries?

Warren Bass: The South Koreans are sure worried that it does... The president’s going to have a pretty interesting visit.

Bethesda, MD: When will our policymakers realize that we (the U.S.) cannot keep going into countries and changing regimes, playing with their politics. There are always negative consequences to this. We are hated in every country that we meddled in! - A concerned American

Warren Bass: No we’re not. Remember, US power helped defeat two nasty forms of totalitarianism last century: Nazi fascism and Soviet communism. There’s lots of people breathing freer air because of that, and plenty of ’em have a soft spot for America.

Now, the US has also done some meddling in Third World countries that hasn’t won quite so many hearts and minds. But watch the premise: sometimes, it’s precisely the countries where the US DOESN’T try to change regimes that anti-Americanism is the strongest. Look at Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egyptians and Saudis have been joining up with Osama bin Laden precisely because the US has been BACKING the current governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In Iran, by contrast, there’s a lot of popular support for the US—to some degree because they know that their lousy regime is home-grown, not US-backed.

Chews Landing, New Jersey: If the war did move to Iran,what would Russia do?

Warren Bass: I’m going to dodge this one, simply because nobody’s talking about moving the war to Iran. Iraq, perhaps. Iran, no. There, a popular, reformist, elected president—Muhammad Khatami—is trying to hold off the unelected mullahs who hold the real levers of power and control the security services. So the idea is to help the reformers and pluck Iran very, very gently—and bring it back into the family of nations.

Ridgefield, Connecticut: I heard you at the Reuters Forum at Columbia University talking about global terror and the global economy. It was so good to hear some real experts talk about globalization instead of what music is playing at the World Economic Forum, or what celebrity is whining about not getting in. Why does the news media cover such nonsense when they should be paying attention to folks like you at the Reuters Forum?

Warren Bass: OK, my grandmother put you up to that...

But there’s a serious issue here. Your news media—yes, including USA Today—does a pathetic job about covering the world. Before 9/11, all kinds of nonsense got tons of coverage, and al-Qaeda got none. If you want to blame someone, talk to your TV news anchors, for one thing, who rake in multimillion dollars salaries while their networks shut down foreign bureaus. It’s something we’ve just got to get serious about.

And international news is great stuff, not cod liver oil. These are fascinating stories, and I’m convinced that if the media tells ’em well, people will read it. If you write it, they will come. So let your newspapers and networks know.

Bloomington, IN: It seems to me that this “Axis of Evil” consists of old US enemies. Is terrorism just an excuse to seek new conflict with old enemies? When was the last attack on Americans by any terrorists hailing from the “Axis of Evil?”

Warren Bass: In the grand sweep of things, Iran and Iraq are comparatively new enemies. Iran was an ally until the 1979 revolution, and Saddam was “someone we could do business with” until he invaded Kuwait in August 1990. (North Korea’s something different.)

Let’s be clear, too, that 9/11 was the largest terrorist attack in history, and if the Bush administration doesn’t respond well, there will be even bigger ones. So I’m wary of the idea that we’re looking to pick fights. We’ve got enough already.

But as for the last attacks on Americans: good question.

The last Iraqi terrorist attack on Americans was a 1993 attempt to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush while he was visiting Kuwait. A lot of Iraqi terrorism since then has focused on its own regional foes—Iran, Turkey, Israel.

As for Iran, well, that 50-ton boat-load of weapons sent to the Palestinian Authority could certainly kill plenty of Americans in Israel. U.S. officials also suspect Iran of having fingerprints on the 1996 truck bombing of Khobar Towers, a US military residence in Saudi Arabia; 19 Americans were killed. And the wider network of terror groups that Iran sponsors—Hezbollah, Hamas, PIJ, the PKK, and so on—could certainly wind up killing Americans, too.

North Korea is something different. As far as we know, it hasn’t been conclusively linked to a terrorist attack since 1987. Even before then, it tended to target South Korea, not America.

But don’t forget the weapons of mass destruction.

Houston, TX: Hi I’m a Turkish student studying in US and i want to learn what your opinion is about Turkey. Do you think think that Turkey is an ally of america or not.

Warren Bass: It’s not a matter of opinion: Turkey’s in NATO, so it is formally a US ally. NATO, remember, said that 9/11 was an attack on all its members, too. And Turkey has volunteered to lead the UN peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan after the British hand it over in the spring.

Toronto, Canada: What will the endpoint be in the US goal to rid the world of terrorism? How for do you think the US is willing to take this fight?

Warren Bass: From my hometown!

The president says it won’t be over until every “terrorist group of global reach” has been destroyed. It’s probably worth taking him at his word.

Comment from Warren Bass: Thanks for your questions today, all.

Comment from Warren Bass: And please do have a look at the Council on Foreign Relation’s new online encyclopedia of terrorism.


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