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[casi] AEI pressing for "Axis of Evil" hunt

Dec. 11, 2003
The First Word: America adrift


On January 29, 2002 in his famous "axis of evil" State of the Union address,
President George W. Bush condemned Iraq, Iran and North Korea: "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."

Bush made a persuasive case, and the American people backed him as he moved
to remove Saddam Hussein from power. But since that momentous day in April
when Saddam's statue was toppled in Firdos Square in Baghdad, US policy on
Iraq, Iran and North Korea has been dangerously adrift. And if the president
is to be believed, the implications of that policy drift could well be

In Iraq, it may have appeared that job No. 1 was military action to
decapitate the regime. Washington has since learned that removing Saddam was
the easy part; figuring out what to put in his place was considerably
harder. Dithering, changes in "plan" and a reluctance to trust Iraqis has
sent dangerous signals throughout the Middle East. If Iraq is to be the
cornerstone of a new region, it had best start looking like something worth
building upon, and soon.

Still, as far as defeating the axis of evil is concerned, Iraq remains,
relatively speaking, the sole success story. The Iranian regime remains
intact to this day, with few signs that Bush's rhetoric has resulted in US
policy initiatives. To the contrary, Bush's National Security Council has
allowed individual agencies of the US government to pursue separate - and
opposing - policies on Iran that have succeeded only in confusing the world
as to America's intentions.

Throughout much of 2003, the Department of Defense has quietly explored
options in destabilizing the Iranian regime, including several
"controversial" meetings with Iranian dissidents and other opposition
figures. Meanwhile, the Department of State has quietly reauthorized
back-channel chats between its envoys and regime officials. For a brief
moment, the US government was able to unite behind the idea that the
International Atomic Energy Agency would be an engine for multilateral
action to isolate Iran. But when the Europeans effectively scuttled that
effort, it was back to business as usual.

The Iranians, correctly sensing that the United States has little intention
of actually doing anything to bring about the downfall of the regime, have
cemented a warm relationship with al-Qaida (allowing the coordination of
terrorist acts from Iranian soil). They have continued to sponsor Hizbullah,
Hamas and other terrorist groups, and inked a deal with the IAEA that may
well grant sufficient time for the mullahs to develop a nuclear weapon. At
the same time, the regime is stirring up trouble for the US in Iraq.

FURTHER IN the annals of "grave and growing danger" is the situation in
North Korea. Unfettered by international inspectors or other outside
pressure, North Korean nuclear and missile programs now operate with
impunity inside the hermit kingdom. Six-party talks designed to pressure
North Korea into disarmament have transformed into a mechanism to pressure
the United States into conciliatory gestures toward the Kim Jong Il regime.

Inside the US government, agencies continue to interpret vague guidelines as
to the direction of North Korea policy. Following the diktat not to
negotiate, some officials inside the Department of State instead use Japan
and South Korea to negotiate on Washington's behalf. Thus, they were able
last weekend to achieve a proposal on joint talks for China to present to
North Korea. Others inside State and at the Pentagon flail angrily at the
proponents of "engagement," insisting they are flouting the president's vow
not to negotiate.

No one is really undercutting policy, because there is no policy. Asked
point-blank whether US policy toward Iran requires regime change, Deputy
Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee "No, Sir." Then what does it require? After months of insisting
that North Korea must "verifiably" dismantle its nuclear program before
Washington could contemplate assistance, a senior State Department official
announced in September that Pyongyang "would not have to do everything" to
get aid.

And in Iraq, the US first opposed a governing council, then supported it but
opposed a provisional government; opposed elections prior to a constitution
and now has reversed itself. Do we or do we not wish Iraqis to govern

Grumbling in Washington about a policy vacuum has reached a crescendo in
recent months. Liberals have been encouraged by setbacks in Iraq to
criticize Bush's "ideological" foreign policy. Meanwhile, ideologues in
sympathy with Bush have grown increasingly angry over the administration's
failure to implement Bush's rhetorical vision. The bottom line is that
neither hawks nor doves inside the administration have offered any genuine
policy options. Engaging bad guys may not amount to policy, but neither does
isolating them. They must be isolated with a purpose in mind.

In fact, what the president seemed to indicate in his clarion call was that
regimes that develop weapons of mass destruction and arm terrorists cannot
be allowed to continue. That requires that they stop or be removed. Iraq has
stopped, but Iran and North Korea continue apace.
In the case of both Iran and North Korea, there are multiple policy options
for ratcheting up pressure on the regimes that do not require military
action. In the case of North Korea, a redeployment of US troops on the
Korean peninsula, a decision to freely admit North Korean refugees into the
US, or a project to contemplate the rearmament of Japan would focus the
attention of Pyongyang and its supporters in Beijing.

In the case of Iran, the Iranian people are begging for US moral, diplomatic
and economic support to organize against their government. Far from
Mossadegh redux, what the Iranian people want most is a clear decision from
the US government that the Teheran regime is beyond the pale, neither a
partner in back-channel chats nor a candidate for rehabilitation or reform.

Iraq should be the lesson that guides the Bush administration as it
considers the remaining parts of the axis. Indecision breeds confusion in
official Washington. As many in this administration have asserted
trenchantly, it was the weakness of the Clinton administration throughout
the 1990s that encouraged al-Qaida to believe we could be attacked and
defeated. Let's not go there again.

The writer is vice president for foreign and defense policy at the American
Enterprise Institute.

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