Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Since President Bush's State of the Union address on January 29, world leaders and Washington pundits are focused on trying to fathom what he means by an "axis of evil" that links Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as dangerous threats to world peace.

Capitals from Paris to Pyongyang wonder whether the American president's remarks are "simplistic," as French foreign minister Herbert Vedrine charged, or whether he actually plans to confront these states over their drive to build nuclear weapons and threaten U.S. interests.

The London Economist observed in an editorial February 2 that Bush should be taken seriously: "One thing that has become clear about President Bush is that, although he may not say very much, he tends to mean what he says."

Few pundits quarrel with the term "evil" in characterizing Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Some attribute this to a White House speech writer who recalled Reagan's use of "evil empire" to describe the USSR and thought the term reflected Bush's current attitude. The president agreed. What is questionable is Bush's use of the term "axis," which implies collaboration among participants, for example, Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II.

Why now?

Three reasons are cited by observers to explain why Bush used the congressional forum to issue his warning to "evil" doers:

* He is concerned about a potential decline in public enthusiasm for expanding the war on terrorism. With Afghanistan's Taliban regime defeated and the al-Qaida's base of operations uprooted, Bush's advisors worry that support for enhanced security restrictions at home and new military strikes abroad will decline unless Americans understand the continuing terrorist threat.

* In order to gain congressional support for huge increases in defense and homeland security spending, the president needs to show that rogue states--Iran, Iraq, and North Korea--seriously threaten this country with nuclear and/or biological weapons. Increased funding for defense and homeland security, however, requires that Congress either limit domestic spending, a painful decision in an election year, or increase the federal deficit. Another option, raising taxes to pay for a defense increase, is not viable among most politicians.

* The president, after receiving fresh intelligence information from the CIA, was startled after September 11 by the immensity of the Islamic terrorist threat to the United States, Europe, and friendly countries around the globe. Earlier, George Tenet, the CIA director, presented evidence that Iran and Iraq posed dangerous threats to peace in the Middle East.

All three reasons leading up to the president's warning to the nation on January 29 are valid. He understands that without strong public support in a congressional election year, he may not get his large defense increase while also keeping the budget deficit down. Remembering how the public's support for Cold War policies waned in the 1970s, Mr. Bush will press his case now in order to sustain public backing for the long haul.

Why three rogue states?

Some ask why the president cited Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, as evil doers while other supporters of terrorism, such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen, were not included. One big reason: those states were at war with the United States during the past half century. U.S. troops fought North Korea in the 1950s, and Iraq in the 1991. And Washington has waged cold war against Iran since 1980, after it seized fifty-two U.S. diplomats and held them hostage for fourteen months.

Iraq. Saddam Hussein's government is seen by many as unfinished business for George W. Bush. Critics say his father, former president George H. Bush, should have sent U.S. troops to Baghdad in 1991 and crushed Saddam's rogue regime. In addition, the Iraqi dictator tried to assassinate the elder Bush during his visit to Kuwait in 1993. In 1998, he forced United Nations arms inspectors to leave the country, shielding his efforts to build nuclear and biological weapons.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told the House International Relations Committee on February 6 that Iraq posed a serious threat to the United States and that President Bush was intent on forcing a "regime change" in Baghdad. He didn't speculate on how this would be done but said U.N. inspectors must have the "unfettered right" to conduct searches throughout Iraq.

Powell testified before the Senate Budget Committee on February 12 that a military plan to unseat Iraq's government was being formulated at the Pentagon. "With respect to Iran and with respect to North Korea," he said, "there is no plan to start a war with these nations." (New York Times, Feb. 13, "Powell Says U.S. is Weighing Ways to Topple Hussein"). Earlier, the secretary of state stated that if the United States decided to take military action against Iraq, it would do so alone if necessary.

Iran. U.S. policy toward Tehran hardened last month when Washington learned that a large ship loaded with arms left Iran and was destined for the Palestine Liberation Organization. In his February 6 testimony before the House, Powell also accused elements of Iran's government of "meddling" in Afghanistan and attempting to destabilize its new government.

Iran's governmental system presents a dilemma for U.S. policy makers. The elected government, headed by President Khatami, pursues reform policies at home and says he desires "detente" relations with Washington. But Iran's hard-line clerics, led by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, control the army, the police, and the courts. Consequently, the Islamic extremists exercise the real power in Iran: they veto any law passed by parliament that they say violates Islamic law. Yet, both groups strongly support the Palestinians' struggle against Israel.

North Korea. The United States has a difficult choice regarding policy toward North Korea. It wants to encourage South Korea's efforts to persuade the North's reclusive Communist regime to accept economic aid to feed its starving population and open its border to visits by Korean families. But Washington also demands that Pyongyang stop building nuclear weapons and selling arms to states such as Iraq and Iran. In short, the Bush administration wants the Communist North to accept U.N. arms inspectors and to stop threatening Japan and South Korea.

Future policy

The Bush administration now seems determined to pursue a tougher foreign policy, including military force, toward any government that attempts to use nuclear and/or biological weapons to intimidate the United States, either through terrorism abroad or on U.S. territory. It is not entirely clear, however, how the administration defines terrorism. For example, in the case of the Palestinians' struggle to achieve their independence, Bush wants both PLO's Yasser Arafat and Israel's Ariel Sharon stop the violence. And he refuses to label Arafat a terrorist.

Another issue that concerns many foreign capitals is who decides when a threat becomes so great that it must be confronted militarily. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told News Hour host, Jim Lehrer, on February 4 that the United States did not need overwhelming proof of a threat in order to launch a preemptive attack. That is a scary view, and Bush should disavow it.

Margaret Thatcher, former British prime minister, stated in a commentary for the New York Times, "Advice to a Superpower," that George Bush should be commended for his forceful stance against rogue states, and added Libya and Syria and Sudan to her list of evil doers. The "Iron Lady" may not represent current European thinking on this matter, but the Bush team will surely be thankful for all the support it can get if it uses force against Saddam Hussein.

File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 07:00 PM EST

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