With Iraq a shambles, North Korean testing a nuclear device, and Iran pursuing uranium enrichment, The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler and Peter Baker revisit the “axis of evil” speech. They underplay, however, the extent to which the speech isn’t merely an ironic reminder of what a bad president Bush is, but was actually constitutive of Bushian badness. Usually, a speech is just a speech, but this was an exception. At the time, it was widely understood that the administration was contemplating a war to depose Saddam Hussein. Under the circumstances, lumping Iran and the DPRK in with Iraq as an “axis of evil” played as a weirdly diffuse and nonspecific threat to overthrow the governments in Teheran and Pyongyang. A threat that we had no capacity to carry out in the short term. This precipatated the recent round of nuclear crisis in North Korea and managed to undermine some then-ongoing cooperation with Iran on Taliban and al-Qaeda issues that stood some chance of leading to a broader rapprochment.
What’s more, as “axis of evil” apologists like Michael Rubin make clear, plunging the world into crisis and closing off diplomatic options was part of the plan. “Clinton administration attempts to engage the Taliban and the North Korean regime were folly. Any attempt to do likewise with Iran would be equally inane. Certain regimes cannot be appeased.” And, clearly, it’s true that some men you just can’t reach, but why should we think this phenomenon has suddenly become so widespread? And why not try? The Clinton administration’s efforts to pursuade the Taliban to give up Osama bin Laden didn’t work, but it was surely worth a shot, especially at a time when full-fledged war just wasn’t on the table as an option.
If it comes to war in the end, then good-faith efforts to resolve outstanding issues without war are integral to giving the war legitimacy. In the North Korean case, Clinton’s policy was working pretty damn well. It led to a non-ideal outcome, but things got much worse when we tried things Bush’s way. Cooperating with Iran, similarly, was paying dividends until we stopped trying it. Similarly, we reached a perfectly reasonable negotiated settlement with Libya even under Bush. It’s regime change as panacea that’s worked really, really, really poorly. It’d be nice if this worked — snap your fingers and get a better regime — but it doesn’t work, and not seeing that is just dumb.