'Axis of Evil' Crumbles Under Scrutiny
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In one of the most dramatic moments of his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush asserted that Iran, Iraq and North Korea jointly constitute "an axis of evil" that threatens world peace. Simply by uttering this phrase -- so suggestive of the "Axis powers" (Germany, Italy and Japan) of World War II -- seemed to put the United States on a higher level of war preparation. And, while insisting that the United States is not on the verge of invasion, senior Pentagon officials suggested that they were gearing up for a possible military engagement with these countries.
Given that any such encounter would be far more costly and dangerous than the current war in Afghanistan, Americans need to ask: How real is this threat? Do we really face an "axis of evil"?
Consider first the concept of an "axis." The term suggests an alliance or confederation of states that pose a significant danger precisely because of their common alignment -- a menace greater than the sum of the parts.
There is no doubt that the leaders of Iran, Iraq and North Korea -- as with leaders from many other nations -- share a certain fear of and hostility toward the United States. But there is absolutely no indication that the three states in question have conspired together to fight the United States or to cooperate militarily. Indeed, President Bush reportedly was obliged to eliminate language from his speech suggesting such ties because U.S. intelligence agencies were unable to find any proof of a connection.
If anything, the three states are more divided than they are united. Iran and Iraq, in particular, have a long history of mutual hostility. Between 1980 and 1988 they fought a bloody war with one another, attacking each other's cities with ballistic missiles and poisoning each other's troops with chemical weapons. They remain bitter enemies today. Iran even has armed anti-government forces inside Iraq. The very idea of an "axis" between these two states is preposterous.
North Korea is no ally to Iran or Iraq. So far as is known, North Korea's only contact with the two has been as a purveyor of ballistic missile components. This is troubling, to be sure, but most American experts believe that the North Koreans' principal motive here is the pursuit of hard cash (it has no other exports to sell) rather than political solidarity. Besides, Pyongyang is believed to have sold more missile technology to our ally Pakistan than to either Iran or Iraq.
What about the threat the three pose as individual actors, outside of any alliance?
Here, Bush can make a stronger case. All three have been known to pursue the manufacture of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and all three possess chemical weapons. This threat requires U.S. attention. However, there is considerable debate in Washington as to the magnitude of the threat and the best way to counter it.
Iraq was once the furthest along of the three in its development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), pursuing nuclear, chemical and biological munitions and ballistic missile delivery systems. But the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict, along with post-conflict arms destruction by the United Nations, eradicated all major Iraqi facilities for the production of these systems. All that remains, so far as can be surmised in the absence of U.N. inspections (which were suspended in 1998), are very small pilot facilities for continuing research in these areas. Any effort by Iraq to build anything larger -- that is, anything capable of producing WMD on a large scale -- would be detected by U.S. satellites and surveillance aircraft and then destroyed by bombs and missiles.
So long as the United States continues its overflights of Iraq, the threat posed by Iraqi WMD can be kept relatively small. And the best way to eliminate this diminished threat, in the view of many experts, is to impose "smart sanctions" of the sort proposed by Secretary of State Colin Powell to compel Iraq to allow the re-entry of U.N. weapons inspectors.
North Korea has the next largest WMD capability. It, too, had sought nuclear weapons in the past, but its nuclear program was dismantled in 1994 under an agreement with the United States -- an agreement that has been faithfully observed by the North Koreans, according to all U.S. reports. Our biggest current worry is North Korea's ballistic missile program, which had been making slow but steady progress in the 1990s.
Under pressure from Russia and China, however, Pyongyang agreed in 1999 to suspend flight testing of its long-range missiles -- a necessary prerequisite for their operational deployment -- so long as the United States engaged in negotiations with North Korea on issues of mutual concern. Continuing these negotiations is thus seen by many in Washington and by most U.S. allies (including South Korea) as the best way to contain the North Korean missile threat.
Iran has the least-developed WMD program. Economic hardship has forced the government to cut back on weapons spending, and its desire for foreign trade and investment has spurred it to open its major nuclear facilities to international inspection. This has not stopped Teheran from pursuing nuclear weapons on a limited, clandestine basis, but most experts believe that it will be many years (if ever) before Iran can acquire the wherewithal to mass-produce nuclear arms.
Fewer constraints stand in the way of Iran's ballistic missile program, but here, too, a lack of funds slows its efforts. Iran is also deeply divided between pro- and anti-reform forces. Many observers (particularly in Europe) believe that the best way to diminish the Iranian threat is to support President Mohammed Khatami and other reformers in their drive to liberalize the country.
What we really face are three very isolated countries with significant problems and many constraints -- hardly an "axis of evil." Certainly the three pose a threat of WMD proliferation -- as do other countries not mentioned by the president, such as India and Pakistan -- and so the United States must take steps to diminish the threat.
But there are many ways to accomplish this without going to war. In fact, merely by threatening to go to war, the president may undermine current efforts to curb their WMD activities, such as unification talks between North and South Korea and the U.S. drive to impose smart sanctions on Iraq. The president's rousing words will hinder rather than help American efforts to make the world a safer place.
Michael Klare ( email@example.com) is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and author of "Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws" (Hill and Wang, 1995).