President Bush made one of those rare presidential statements that go down in history when he called the regimes in Iraq, North Korea and Iran the “axis of evil.” That will rank with Ronald Reagan’s call to then-Soviet President Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” as an example of a leader using words to reshape the future.
Diplomats who agonize over what other countries think, and those who believe in paying off the world’s evil forces, were aghast at both remarks. Yet, we now know President Reagan’s call to tear down the Berlin Wall was like a thunderbolt to the captive peoples of Eastern Europe. They knew then that their plight was understood in the West and proceeded to overthrow the tyrants who controlled them.
But even after the fall of the Ba’ath Party dictatorship in Iraq and the unearthing of mass graves of people executed by the regime, the president’s critics still sneer at his reference to the axis of evil. That comment, they say, has complicated efforts to negotiate with North Korea and reach out to the “moderates” in Iran.
But past negotiating with North Korea led to payoffs that helped keep that evil regime in power, while failing to prevent the North from producing missiles and nuclear weapons. Similarly, years of trying to deal with moderates in Iran has shown they have little power, while the anti-American mullahs really control things.
By linking the three evil regimes and then forcibly removing one from power, President Bush sent a strong signal to the other two. Their reactions have been sharply different. The North Korean regime has issued increasingly hysterical threats. The Iranian mullahs, by contrast, are being conciliatory. They now say they will not withdraw from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and will consider a new protocol to allow short notice inspections of suspect nuclear sites.
Despite the critics, the president was right in naming these three regimes. All had leaders who persecuted and repressed the majority of their citizens. They had chemical weapons and were trying to develop nuclear and biological ones, and all had ballistic missiles to deliver them. Saddam Hussein was removed from power because he was the most dangerous. He had twice invaded neighbors (Iran and Kuwait), used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war and against his own Kurdish citizens, and continued to threaten his neighbors.
The fall of Saddam in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan leaves North Korea and Iran as the principal state threats to peace. North Korea makes and exports ballistic missiles, and now claims to be producing nuclear weapons. The North recently moved long-range artillery closer to Seoul, deployed a second battalion of Nodong missiles aimed at Japan, and says it reprocessed enough nuclear fuel rods to make a half-dozen nuclear weapons.
North Korea is pressing the U.S. for a security guarantee and large amounts of aid. During the Clinton years, its bluster led to gifts of food and fuel. But not under the Bush administration, which has coolly ignored North Korea’s threats, while organizing a new international coalition to begin stopping some of its exports.
Eleven countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Spain and Australia have joined Mr. Bush’s Proliferation Security Initiative to intercept shipments of missiles, weapons of mass destruction materials and narcotics. This new coalition soon will begin training to stop and search suspect ships, and force cargo planes to land. Other countries will be asked to deny refueling and overflight rights. This approach to the North’s tantrums — ignore them, make no concessions, and slowly tighten an international noose — is exactly right, despite the wailing of former Clinton administration officials, who want to resume making concessions.
Meanwhile, international pressure on Iran to allow more intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities, plus the presence of U.S. troops in adjoining countries, seems to be having a positive effect. The mullahs continue to follow a hard line, cracking down on demonstrators and boasting of their Shahab-3 missile, which they pointedly note can reach Israel. But they also deny they have enriched uranium and suggest they may cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
The Bush administration’s approach to North Korea and Iran is exactly right: Ignore the threats, make no concessions, lead international coalitions to restrain them, press Russia and China to cooperate, and slowly tighten an international noose. After all, it is in the interest of most countries to prevent these rogue regimes from obtaining and selling nuclear weapons and missiles.
With Saddam removed from power and the other members of the axis of evil under growing pressure, President Bush’s cool determination is paying off.
James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times and is based in San Diego.