It has been less than a week, and already it's hard to remember a single line from President Obama's most recent State of the Union address.
Yet people are still arguing about the State of the Union delivered by George W. Bush 10 years ago Sunday: the famous, or notorious, "axis of evil" speech. I played a small part in the crafting of that speech. Rereading it again after this long interval of time, I'm impressed to see how well it stands up—and how wrong so many of its critics were.
Ten years ago, President Bush asserted that the world's leading rogue regimes and a variety of terrorist groups together formed an "axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world."
Those words touched off possibly the most explosive reaction ever heard to a presidential speech: an outpouring of enraged criticism that reverberates all these years later.
The criticism could be summarized under three main headers:
1) It was naive, paranoid, or outright deceptive to suggest that rogue states and terrorist groups might cooperate across ideological or theological lines. Communist North Korea would never cooperate with Shiite Iran. Shiite Iran would never aid Sunni Hamas.
2) By pointing fingers at these regimes, the president disrupted fruitful negotiations and cooperation.
3) And what about Pakistan and Saudi Arabia? Didn't they support terrorism? Why were they omitted from the memorable axis?
Criticism #1 is the criticism most thoroughly debunked by subsequent revelations. The whole world now knows what 10 years ago counted as highly sensitive intelligence information: rogue regimes do cooperate, and support for terrorism does cross ideological and theological lines.
From the New York Times, Nov. 2010:
Secret American intelligence assessments have concluded that Iran has obtained a cache of advanced missiles, based on a Russian design, that are much more powerful than anything Washington has publicly conceded that Tehran has in its arsenal, diplomatic cables show.
Iran obtained 19 of the missiles fromNorth Korea, according to a cable dated Feb. 24 of this year.
The missiles could for the first time give Iran the capacity to strike at capitals in Western Europe or easily reach Moscow, and American officials warned that their advanced propulsion could speed Iran’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
From CNN, April 2008:
U.S. intelligence officials will tell members of Congress on Thursday that North Korea was helping Syria build a nuclear facility, according to a source familiar with internal administration discussions. The facility in question was bombed by Israeli planes in September.
From the leading book on Hamas, by a former intelligence analyst at the US Treasury, published in 2007: "The Islamic Republic of Iran ... is Hamas's most important and explicit state sponsor. ... Estimates of Iran's financial assistance to Hamas vary, but there is unanimity on one score: the sum is significant ... at least $25-50 million in 1995 and 1996."
I could fill the column with more examples, but you get the idea. The president's claims in 2002 have been fully corroborated by later knowledge.
The second criticism—that Bush's tough words prevented cooperation with Iran and North Korea—has also been discredited. The period 1997-2001, the period when Iran was supposedly most open to cooperation with the West, was precisely the period in which Iran was investing heavily in the nuclear sites in Natanz and Arak that were exposed to the world in the summer of 2002.
Yes, the Iranian regime had bad relations with the Afghan Taliban, the prime exporters of heroin into Iran. Yes, the Iranian regime was happy to stand aside as US forces overthrew Mullah Omar and his gang. But the claim circulated at that time that the Axis of Evil speech derailed some possible “grand bargain” with Iran was the purest wishful thinking. When the Taliban fell, the Iranians extended refuge to fleeing al-Qaeda members, including relatives of Osama bin Laden. Work on the nuclear program never slowed.
In 2009, a new American president put to the test the hopes that a US appeal might gain a positive Iranian response. Instead, the regime rigged its 2009 presidential elections; jailed, tortured, and killed protesters; and proceeded apace toward a nuclear bomb.
In North Korea likewise, the Axis of Evil speech did not disrupt any good-faith negotiations, for the compelling reasons that there were no good faith negotiations to disrupt. Both regimes valued their nuclear programs more than they valued good relations with the US. If they could dupe the US into offering good relations while continuing their nuclear programs, they were delighted to do that—but if abandonment of their nuclear programs became a serious price for good relations, they then preferred bad. That choice was always theirs, not America’s.
Indeed, the only pause in the Iranian nuclear program occurred in the two years after the invasion of the Iraq, when Qaddafi of Libya surrendered his nuclear program and a frightened Iran slowed down its weaponization. It was the hard line, not the soft line, that briefly diverted Iran from its dangerous path.
The third criticism heard at the time was that the speech was hypocritical: why single out some countries but not others, equally problematic? What about Saudi Arabia? What about Pakistan?
Fair points, up to a point. The 2002 State of the Union offered Pakistan in particular praise it did not deserve.
“Many nations are acting forcefully. Pakistan is now cracking down on terror, and I admire the strong leadership of President Musharraf.”
These words were spoken not even 8 weeks after Pakistani-backed terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament. And within some very few months after these words were spoken, Osama bin Laden would find refuge inside Pakistan.
But critics of President Bush’s inconsistency have some inconsistencies of their own to iron out.
Would they have wished him to adopt a tougher line to more countries? Or is the argument, “Since we weren’t able to do much about Pakistan, therefore we should not do much about Iraq and Iran either?”
In fact, Bush in 2002 took exactly the gamble with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that critics of his Iraq and Iran policy urged him to take with the latter two countries: he tried to woo them with a softer line. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the gamble paid off. Especially after Saudi Arabia suffered a burst of terrorism on its own soil in 2005, the Saudi authorities became much more cooperative with the United States, cracking down on terrorist financing within their country and better sharing information. With Pakistan, unfortunately, the gamble failed. Pakistan today presents even more challenges to US policy than in 2002.
Yet the Pakistan example should chasten Bush’s critics even more than the Bush administration: that example suggests that soft-line policies can also fail—a good lesson to keep in mind on this 10th anniversary.