Commentary Magazine

The Axis of ?

What the phrase Axis of Evil lacked in subtlety it made up for in accuracy. Later allegations notwithstanding, in January 2002 when George W. Bush homed in on Iraq, Iran, and North Korea in his State of the Union Address, no one believed that the U.S. had fabricated any evidence against these countries. The infamous coinage has since dwarfed the President’s elaboration on the Axis, which is worth reviewing. Bush’s exact words were

States like these, 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.

And no evidence of indifference was to be found in the U.S.’s approach. Little more than a year after the address, we were at war with Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime. It was widely believed at the time that one way or another Bush would pick off, or do his very best to de-fang, all three regimes of which the Axis was comprised. Six years later, where do things stand?

While the war in Iraq has created, by far, the most potentially favorable conditions to be found in any Axis state, obsessive media coverage of the fight’s setbacks have rendered it a failure in the public’s mind. At least for the time being. Iran is poised to become a nuclear state, and the public is largely ambivalent. On June 26, it became clear that a still-rogue North Korea had managed to make it out of the Axis altogether, as the White House announced its intention to remove the Kim Jong Il regime from the list of terrorism-supporting nations. And the public is celebrating.

But for those who didn’t snicker at the Axis of Evil designation, this most recent development feels like the reneging of a vitally serious commitment. When Dick Cheney, staunchly opposed to taking North Korea off the list, was recently asked to put the decision into context, he reacted as follows:

Cheney froze, according to four of the participants at the Old Executive Office Building meeting. For more than 30 minutes he had been talking and answering questions, without missing a beat. But now, for several long seconds, he stared, unsmilingly, at his questioner, Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation, a public policy institution.

Finally, he spoke: "I’m not going to be the one to announce this decision," the other participants recalled Cheney saying, pointing at himself. "You need to address your interest in this to the State Department."

He then declared that he was done taking questions, and left the room.

The U.S. has a singularly undistinguished record when it comes to falling for the machinations of Kim Jong Il, and it’s very depressing to confirm that record’s extension into the post-9/11 era. Indeed, the blame lies largely with the State Department. American negotiator Christopher Hill has agreed to let North Korea give a woefully incomplete accounting of its nuclear program to China and call it a day. While the North Koreans are revealing some details of their plutonium enrichment program and making a show of blowing up facilities, there’s the catastrophic omission of their uranium enrichment. As Gordon G. Chang points out, "traces of highly enriched uranium were found on the 18,000 pages of documentation that North Korea turned over to the State Department’s Sung Kim, the Korea desk chief, last month." In addition to that nightmarish absurdity, Chang adds, "North Korea has maintained a secret uranium enrichment program . . . and a secret site housing uranium enrichment activity." It is worth noting, too, it has only been two months since CIA Director Michael Hayden asserted that North Korea assisted Syria in its efforts to build the nuclear reactor destroyed by an Israeli air strike last September.

While the State Department now seems bent on multilateralism at all costs, the North Korea agreement does also bear the imprimatur of the President. One wonders how the man who spoke so decisively in 2002, and has since forged ahead so defiantly in Iraq, has come to okay such a dangerous accommodation. Bush’s biggest foreign policy missteps have been characterized by murkiness, indecision, and procrastination. Apart from the occasional public renunciation, Washington was virtually without a policy towards Tehran for the entirety of Bush’s presidency. In that time, Iran’s semi-covert quest to develop nuclear weapons has progressed apace, as has its drive toward greater regional hegemony. While Vladimir Putin flexed his military muscles, consolidated power, and stripped away Russia’s freedoms, the Bush administration responded by toning down their degree of public praise for Putin. While the Bush North Korea policy of engaging in six-party-talks was not exactly indecisive, it was unavoidably murky because it was multilateral by design. Moreover, two of the parties — China and Russia – are themselves troubling opportunists whose own power-plays were extremely counterproductive. Yet with this much time invested, and with so much on the line, the problems of the six-party-talks can not be considered motivating factors for Bush’s pivot on North Korea (and his stand-down on Iran.)

I fear that in one sense the Iraq war has ended up as a disaster. The years of body counts, lost ground, and criminal accusations might just have sapped George W. Bush of his greatest strength. Leading and defending such a difficult and maligned operation has perhaps cost the President the last dregs of his formidable resolve.

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