Opportunities Lost Huge opportunities were left in the wake of September 11, 2001. Most of the world was ready and willing to accept American leadership. George W. Bush probably had the largest field of maneuver available to any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt after December 7, 1941. The Bush admin- istration could have generated a cohesive political force of a kind that had not been seen since the Cold War. “We are all Americans,” proclaimed the page-one headline in Le Monde, the French newspaper, on September 12, a declaration of solidarity from an unlikely source.
In seizing the moment, Bush’s people could and should have set about stabilizing the most serious sources of instability—the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and Northeast Asia. In the Middle East, they could have deployed their new leverage to push Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization into serious negotiations. Quite clearly, Israel’s Likud government expected exactly that, especially when on October 2 Bush endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state. Two days later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Washington not to “try to appease the Arabs at our expense . . . Israel will not be Czechoslovakia.” The administration backed off. Regime change on the West Bank became more attractive than taking on the Likud and its allies in Washington.1
In the Persian Gulf, the Iranian government cooperated by authorizing American search-and-rescue operations on its soil, the transit of humanitarian assistance, and help in the formation of the new Afghan government. In many Iranian cities, groups gathered to express sympathy for the victims of the attacks on the United States. Both hard-liners and reformers denounced the attacks. At that pivotal moment, Iran’s reformist government would have been politically free to extend its reach to America even further. But Washington’s harsh reaction, notably Bush’s “axis of evil” remark, damaged prospects for beginning to repair a bilateral relationship with Iran, a relationship of surpassing strategic importance. By citing Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” Bush squandered the goodwill that flowed from 9/11 and provoked an outcry there; Iran’s reformist bloc instantly lost the leverage it had drawn from the event.
As for the relentless problem of North Korea, a major breakthrough with the regime of Kim Jong Il had been all but made when Bill Clinton left the White House; an incoming administration could have completed the agreement and perhaps even improved on it. The case for doing so was obvious, with Colin Powell having privately called that question a “no brainer.”2 Powell had been speaking only for himself, but with the momentum and aura of urgency later released by 9/11, the case should have been easier to make with an administration whose other senior figures opposed talks with North Korea.
Negotiation was Washington’s only plausible option. But apart from wasting twenty-two months debating whether to talk to Pyongyang even once, Bush’s people didn’t come close to developing an approach to North Korea that Japan, China, and South Korea—the other regional players—could accept.
Taking steps to moderate the dangers from unconventional weapons, a.k.a. weapons of mass destruction (WMD), was another opportunity missed. The Bush administration correctly cited the connection between these weapons and terrorism. And the post-9/11 world was prepared to help. But Bush and his key advisors, by what they did and have failed to do, weakened efforts to discourage and curb the proliferation of the most threatening weapons.
Passive defense based on agreements among and between nations and international bodies is essential to limiting the spread of weapons and accidents, and to discouraging the use of such weapons by one state against another or by terrorist groups. In their disdain for diplomacy in general and arms-control agreements in particular, the administration ignored a major opportunity that existed before and after September 11 to lower the multiple risks from nuclear and other extreme weapons.
A growing chorus of critics within and beyond Europe deplored the thrust of U.S. policy and objected to what it saw as a pronounced unilateralism and indifference to the interests of others. In describing Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” Bush took a line that was—is—radically different from that of close American allies, including Britain.
Allies regarded the three countries not as an axis of any kind but as located in regions, notably Northeast Asia and especially Southwest Asia, that harbor the most serious threats to global security. Pakistan, for example, is likely to stand out in the years ahead as the single most dangerous place in today’s world; and Iran is the country that could, if circumstances permitted, contribute most to stability in the deeply troubled places that lie just beyond its own frontiers.
The “axis of evil” passage was thought by some to have been drafted as an applause line, designed to melodramatize and inflate a threat that wasn’t likely to become real unless Washington insisted on treating it as such. A wider and more plausible view is that the language was inserted at the last minute by the hard-liners around Bush who wanted to see him committed to regime change.
“Regime change” is the administration’s mantra. Ask an administration official about how to approach a problem of some complexity with a given country, and the answer, as often as not, will be “regime change.”
The issue appears to turn on how bad behavior can be changed. Forcibly replacing regimes is one way. There are the traditional tools, including preventive diplomacy, provisions of international law, arms-control agreements, controls on transfers of technology, and intrusive verification measures. However, the Bush administration seems to feel that bad behav- ior cannot be altered by traditional methods, only by regime change. Most of its members distrust arms control and dislike written agreements.
Regime change is seldom an answer. Even to consider supplanting a country’s regime in the absence of a clear and present danger to American security is dangerously irresponsible. Among other things, it can stiffen the resistance of ele- ments within troubled countries to giving up highly destructive weapons.
Regime change is an attitude, not a policy. The “axis of evil” passage wasn’t signaling a new policy toward Iran and North Korea. So far, the Bush team has avoided developing a workable policy toward either country. Instead, it has tried and failed to persuade European governments to discontinue extending credits to Iran, and has tried unavailingly to persuade Russia to deny assistance to Iran’s nuclear programs.
Before 9/11, Iraq was judged a problem, not an imminent threat to the United States or to global stability. Iraq’s weap- ons of mass destruction were intended to intimidate Shia and Kurdish population groups and neighboring states—to allow Saddam to become the dominant regional player. But the problem he posed, although demanding continued vigilance, had been contained and appeared to be still containable. Indeed, Colin Powell, at his first press conference with the president-elect, dismissed Saddam Hussein as a “weak dictator sitting on a failed regime that is not going to be around in a few years time.”3
The major threats pre-9/11 were posed by Pakistan; Kashmir, the flashpoint to which Pakistan lays claim; the Arab-Israeli conflict; and non-state terrorist organizations. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, was responding to South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy” (intended to reconcile the North and the South) and apparently ready to open his country to the world.
In February 2001, shortly after Bush’s inauguration, George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence, testified before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on “worldwide threats to national security.” The testimony continues to resonate. Tenet began by citing the threat from terrorism as “real, immediate, and evolving. State-sponsored terrorism,” he said, “appears to have declined over the past five years, but transnational groups with decentralized leadership that makes them harder to identify and disrupt are emerging. . . . Osama bin Laden and his global network of lieutenants and associates are the most immediate and serious threat.”
But the Bush administration arrived with a different bias, as reflected in a guidance memorandum to embassies conveyed by the State Department early in 2001: “The principal threat today is . . . the use of long-range missiles by rogue states for purposes of terror, coercion, and aggression.4 National missile defense was established as the centerpiece of Bush’s national security policy, even if all or most of the world’s other major capitals considered the venture unresponsive to plausible threats and a potential danger to global security.
It was the Arab-Israeli struggle that preoccupied many of these other capitals, notably Europe’s; they saw it as a major threat that could only broaden and become more acute. They have always regarded the conflict as political and social, and European hostility at virtually all levels to the government of Ariel Sharon has become a constant. The Bush administration’s unconditional support for Sharon was the source of the most intense anti-American sentiment in Western Europe. Moreover, many Europeans were, and are, acutely concerned about their proximity to volatile Islamic societies; immigration was, and is, a hot-button issue throughout most of Europe.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Imperial America by John Newhouse. Copyright © 2003 by John Newhouse. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.