Kick the 'Axis of Evil' Can to Next President

Regensburg, Germany — In his 2002 State of the Union address President Bush labeled three nations — Iraq, North Korea and Iran — members of an “axis of evil” promising to prevent those regimes “…from threatening America …  with weapons of mass destruction.”  Unfortunately, the President will leave office with the job one-third completed and a series of last minute, dangerous credibility destroying policy reversals.  

President Bush has successfully removed Iraq’s threat but the threats posed by North Korea and Iran will continue into the next administration.  Worse, in his final year, President Bush has abandoned conservative principles in favor of accommodating the remaining “axis of evil” nations.

“North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens,” argued the President in 2002.  That’s as true today as it was then.  Until last month, President Bush was tough, refusing to negotiate with Pyongyang until the regime agreed to take concrete steps to dismantle its nuclear programs.

Last month, however, Bush abandoned his previous all-or-nothing strategy for what Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) labels a “legacy agreement” rather than getting “…to the bottom of North Korea’s nuclear efforts.”  Now, the President is doing the same with Iran.

In 2002 Bush said, “Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.” Those facts also remain true today.  

Iran is undoubtedly pursuing nuclear weapons. It has a robust ballistic missile program that threatens Europe and may soon threaten the US.  Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad openly flouts Tehran’s violent intentions and the regime unashamedly sponsors the world’s largest terrorist group, Hizballah. There are no signs its rulers will abandon their repressive ways.  Iran has also fueled the Iraq insurgency making it responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers.

Surprisingly, the administration perhaps anxious for a geopolitical legacy is reversing its Iran policy.   There are three indicators of that shift.

First, the administration has floated the idea of opening an “American interests section” in Tehran — a halfway house to setting up a full embassy.  This would be the first US diplomatic post in Iran since the two countries cut ties after the 1979 hostage crisis, when revolutionary students seized the US Embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days. 

The return of US diplomats would be welcomed.  Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the offer was acceptable to Iran in principle and Iranian President Ahmadinejad said, “We will receive favorably any action which will help to reinforce relations between the peoples.”

One possible explanation for placing an interests section in Tehran is to expand the “engagement” strategy supported by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In her recent statement, Rice said “We are determined to reach out to the Iranian people.”  But that contradicts the Bush administration’s standing policy which places the onus to improve relations on Tehran by changing its threatening and irresponsible behavior.

Second, it wasn’t long after the administration floated the interests section idea that Rice found a loop-hole in its “no negotiation until Iran stops uranium enrichment” policy to send a senior American official to the table with Tehran.   On July 19, William Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, met with Iranian officials in Geneva to hear Tehran’s response to a US offer outlining a possible way-ahead on the nuclear issue.  

Burns was present when – for the umpteenth time – Tehran’s representatives utterly refused to stop its uranium enrichment program.

The loop-hole permitting Burns’ participation is a formula known as “freeze-for-freeze.”  Iran must agree to not add to its nuclear program and the six negotiating partners — the US, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China – would not seek new international sanctions for six weeks to pave the way for formal negotiations. The face saving part of the deal for the Bush administration is that once full fledged (read “real”) negotiations begin Tehran must stop spinning its centrifuges.  

Secretary Rice also wants us to pretend that Burns’ Geneva meeting was “not a negotiation.”  Rather, she explained the decision to send Burns was a “tactical” move intended only “to receive the reply that the Iranians were expected to give a response to an offer posed by the US” and to make clear that if the Iranians “…want to negotiate, the condition for doing that is to suspend verifiably their enrichment and reprocessing.”

Let’s be honest: Rice is laying the groundwork for direct US negotiations with Iran.  Vali Nasr, an international politics professor at Tufts University, explained, “The US realized that the old pattern of diplomatic negotiation, through the Europeans, was just not working.”  The US, if it is going to reach its goal of removing Iran as a WMD threat, must drop the pretense that the current approach can work. 

Iran has defied three sets of UN sanctions demanding it cease its nuclear program, saying it has a right to its peaceful uses under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But there is widespread concern the Islamic Republic is building nuclear weapons which could destabilize the world.

Unfortunately, the Geneva “freeze-for-freeze”, “not a negotiation” meeting appears to have been a bust.  Iran provided a document that failed to address enrichment and Keyvan Imani, a member of the Iranian delegation, said, “Suspension [of uranium enrichment] – there is no chance for that.”  That comment cast doubt over the value of the talks and reinforced critics like former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton who said of the meeting, “This is … the total intellectual collapse of the Bush administration.”

Finally, the White House has abandoned its opposition to an Iraq withdrawal timetable which is a policy reversal that helps Tehran.  Previously, Bush had often ridiculed Democratic proposals for what he described as “artificial” timetables.

On July 18, Bush agreed with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to set “aspirational” goals for a US troop drawdown.  This change satisfies both Iraqi pressure for a withdrawal timeline which is motivated by domestic politics and Tehran’s desire for a closely aligned Shia-dominated neighbor in Iraq which is free of American influence.

The Bush administration argues that its many policy shifts – North Korea, Iran, Iraq – have been misinterpreted.  Gordon Johndroe, a National Security Council spokesman, said these moves are “…fruits of the diplomatic labor that we’ve been engaged in the last couple of years.”

But John Bolton likened Bush’s policy reversals to breaches in a dam that is about to burst.  “Once the collapse begins, adversaries have a real opportunity to gain advantage,” Bolton said. “In terms of the Bush presidency, this many reversals this close to the end destroys credibility. … It appears there is no depth to which this administration will not sink in its last days.”

President Bush promised to prevent the “axis of evil” regimes from threatening America and our allies with WMD.  He succeeded with Iraq but his legacy will include last minute major policy reversals that made North Korea and Iran more dangerous for his successor.  


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