When President George W Bush introduced us to the axis of evil in his 2002 state of the union address, he said: “The US will not allow the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most dangerous weapons.” Of the three members of the axis of evil – Iraq, Iran and North Korea – we invaded the one, Iraq, which represented the least threat; the one where American and British warplanes over-flew regularly at will; the one which was subject to United Nations sanctions which could not be lifted without the agreement of the United States; the one where UN inspectors were on the ground searching for WMD immediately prior to the invasion; the one whose army was broken from wars with Iran and then the First Gulf War coalition.
More than four and a half years after that speech, we know now with painful certainty that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and no connection to al-Qaida or 9/11. We are, nevertheless, mired in a losing counter insurgency in Iraq that has claimed the lives of close to 2800 Americans and anywhere from 50-150,000 Iraqis. The country itself appears close to meltdown.
Meanwhile North Korea, a much more dangerous adversary with its bizarre regime and formidable conventional armed forces, had curtailed its own efforts to acquire nuclear weapons using enriched plutonium from a reactor as part of the Agreed Framework negotiated – yes negotiated as in talks with – during the Clinton administration in 1994. In return, the North Koreans would receive oil and light water nuclear technology. Although it was primarily an agreement negotiated between the United States and North Korea, Japan and South Korea were involved also, primarily in the provision of energy supplies and technology.
Secretary of State Colin Powell initially supported the Clinton approach, even after previous suspicions that North Korea was pursuing ways to enrich uranium as an alternative path to nuclear weapons development were confirmed. Rather than utilize further negotiation as the best tool to curb these activities, the Bush administration adopted Vice-President Dick Cheney’s hard-line of eschewing direct negotiation and used North Korea’s cheating as a pretext for allowing the Agreed Framework agreement to collapse. The North Koreans thereupon dismantled the electronic monitors on its reactor, ended the periodic inspections by American experts and resumed plutonium enrichment production.
The result is that North Korea has almost certainly produced enough plutonium for up to ten warheads during the periods preceding the Agreed Framework and following its collapse, encouraged, no doubt, by the fate that befell Iraq – something the paranoids who rule North Korea were no doubt determined to avoid. Well, actually nine now since it exploded one recently, thereby announcing its membership in the exclusive nuclear club. There is no evidence that any enriched plutonium was produced during the Clinton administration and North Korea never pursued the uranium route once it resumed producing plutonium. When combined with its long range missile testing, it is clear that North Korea is now a far more serious threat that when Bush took office – a dangerous regime with the world’s most dangerous weapons, in fact.
The last member of the AOE triad, Iran, has seen its power and influence in the Middle East increase dramatically since the invasion of Iraq. It has witnessed the U.S. military becoming bogged down in Iraq thereby drastically reducing the possibility of our nation summoning either the stomach or the wherewithal for a unilateral (because not even the British would join us) invasion of Iran. It is clearly pressing ahead with the development of a nuclear capability determined, as is North Korea, not to meet the same fate as its neighbour, Iraq. It has also been smart enough to disperse its facilities so as to make a surgical air strike to knock them out almost impossible to accomplish. Iran sees little threat in the possibility of economic sanctions, even assuming China and Russia would go along. The icing on the cake for Iran was the brief but fierce war on the border of Lebanon and Israel when its surrogate ally, Hezbollah, went toe to tow with the Israeli army – and fought it to a standstill. Here again Bush administration miscalculated and its diplomacy was too little, too late in preventing the enhancement of both Iran and Hezbollah’s standing in the region.
Hard to escape the conclusion, then, that Iran, too, has become a more formidable player on the world stage since Bush became president. That would make two out of three members of the axis of evil more dangerous than ever, with the third now a chaotic mess thanks to Bush.
In fact it’s virtually impossible to point to a foreign policy success by this administration, unless you count Libya’s decision to join the community of nations – and that had more to do with their desire to have sanctions lifted than any huffing and puffing from the Bush administration. In fact, the manner in which Bush has prosecuted the so-called war on terror has alienated most of the rest of the world, including the people of allied nations such as Britain. We have surrendered the moral high ground as we employ tactics against suspected terrorists that we would have, rightly, condemned when used by others in times past.
The Bush administration argues that its critics are hypocritical in castigating it for employing multilateral diplomacy to diffuse the crises involving Iran and North Korea. There are a couple of problems with this argument. First, diplomacy works best when one is negotiating from a position of strength. That would have been after the overthrow of the Taliban when America’s will, power and influence appeared unassailable. Now that the Bush administration has belatedly discovered the value of negotiation, our nation is in a far different place – and mood. The country exudes far less strength than four years ago, exhausted as it has become by Bush’s policies, and our adversaries know it.
Second, the Bush administration has resorted to multilateral diplomacy because the previous refusal to negotiate with North Korea, for example, proved unsustainable – not to mention ridiculous. Yet its refusal to hold one-on-one talks with countries such as North Korea, Iran and Syria, because of the asinine belief that such negotiations reward bad behaviour, has hamstrung the U.S. ability to influence events and our adversaries actions.
A multilateral diplomatic approach to Iraq, for example through the U.N. would have made and, indeed, was making perfect sense. North Korea, on the other hand, required a different strategy given that regime’s paranoia and belief that the only world power that threatens it and therefore that it is prepared to seriously negotiate with is the U.S. It’s strange that the Clinton neophytes were able to understand that so clearly, whilst the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld, old and sure foreign policy hands we were told, never have.
This administration’s unwillingness to employ unilateral negotiation as one of many diplomatic tools with those it sees as its adversaries is one of the strangest manifestations of the incompetence and fecklessness of the Bush administration. It is also a testament to the influence of Cheney; and it has been a disaster for this country’s foreign policy.