The War on Terrorism and the Axis of Evil

David Tucker

March 1, 2002

Just four months into the war on terrorism, and with much still to be done, George Bush identified Iraq, Iran and North Korea in his State of the Union speech as an axis of evil. And he promised to do something about it. In the speech, the President made clear, as his chief advisors have since, that the evil these countries engage in is not primarily their support for terrorism but their eagerness to possess and, in the case of North Korea, their willingness to share the technology of mass destruction.

The campaign against terrorism is not the same thing, then, as the campaign against the axis of evil. Having launched the United States in a war on terrorism that may well last for years and engage us around the globe, the Bush administration has now launched us into another and potentially more difficult struggle against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. What are we to make of this mighty endeavor?

The first thing we should do is commend the administration for promising to tackle a problem that previous administrations have turned away from, believing it too difficult to handle. When proliferation begins, the danger is not apparent and action has too high a political price. When proliferation is accomplished, the danger is more evident but the weapons are ready for use or well-protected. Getting at them presents overwhelming challenges for our military and intelligence services and, therefore, a new set of political risks deemed too great to permit action. Facing the threat of proliferation, it has been easy to temporize and leave the problem for another day.

The Bush administration learned on September 11 that a day of reckoning comes. All the steps that we have taken against terrorism following September 11, we could have taken before. We did not take them because the cost seemed too high. The Bush administration has apparently decided not to wait to see if someone will make us pay the price for inaction against proliferation.

However commendable, the course that the administration has taken remains a difficult one. Can we effectively wage war simultaneously against both terrorism and those who proliferate weapons of mass destruction?

The war on terrorism has already aggravated resource problems in the military. The campaign in Afghanistan has worn out aircraft. The Navy does not have enough money to buy as many aircraft as it needs. Even with the large increase in defense spending that is part of President Bush’s new budget, we are spending only a little over three per cent of our gross domestic product on defense. During the Cold War we averaged six to eight per cent. The Defense Department recently submitted a supplemental budget but the White House reduced the request when it passed it on to the Congress because it wanted to limit deficit spending.

Resource constraints appear not only with equipment. Special Forces figured prominently in the campaign in Afghanistan. Working with Afghans opposed to the Taliban they were able to direct devastating air strikes on targets and turned the opposition into an effective fighting force. Although we are unlikely to wage another campaign like the one in Afghanistan, Special Forces will figure prominently in both the war on terrorism and the struggle against proliferation because of their unique capabilities. But Special Forces are a tiny portion of our military manpower. They cannot be mass-produced. Their strength resides in the non-commissioned officers with years of experience and extensive special training that make up their ranks. As military manpower has decreased over the last decade, it has become harder and harder to find such experienced soldiers. Indeed, in an effort to increase their pool of recruits, Special Forces have recently started to recruit directly from the civilian population.

Resource constraints are not the only or the most important problem with waging these two wars at the same time. Our enemies in the war on terrorism may be elusive and the best way to deal with them subject to debate but no one could reasonably dispute why we were going after bin Laden or that the Taliban was complicit because of the support they gave bin Laden. Questions have been raised, however, about why President Bush singled out Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the axis of evil.

In the State of the Union address the President first introduced these three as sponsors of terrorism, arguing that they might share the technology of mass destruction with terrorists. But what about states that supply one or more of the three members of the axis of evil with the technology of mass destruction? One would think they should be part of the axis of evil as well. Yet, the United States has not included Russia or China in the axis despite the fact, as the United States has publicly stated many times, that these two states transfer such technology to the members of the axis and to others. Since the State of the Union address, the administration has emphasized proliferation as the principal membership criterion for the axis of evil, making the absence of Russia and China more glaring. Even the British government, our staunchest ally in the war on terrorism, has publicly noted this discrepancy in discussing whether it makes sense to identify only Iraq, Iran and North Korea as a proliferation axis of evil.

And what about Saudi Arabia? The Saudis are not proliferators but much of the money to run bin Laden’s al Qaeda network came from Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden used some of this money to try to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Saudi money also funds many of the groups that Iran and Iraq sponsor or help protect. None of this is secret or disputed. In fact, a recent poll found that 44% of Americans identified Saudi Arabia as a sponsor of terrorism. But Saudi Arabia is not part of the axis of evil.

We should not be surprised, of course, especially while the United States needs their help in the war on terrorism, that it does not want to simultaneously antagonize Russia, China and Saudi Arabia by including them in the axis of evil. But excluding these countries turns what the President presented as a stand on principle in his State of the Union speech into another example of expediency. Expediency is sometimes necessary in this imperfect world but we should not be surprised that others have different views of what is expedient, of what serves their immediate interest. These different views mean, as has become evident, that it will be more difficult to build an effective coalition against proliferation than it was to build one against terrorism.

We may put this problem another way. Not having suffered the September 11 attack on their own soil, other nations, even our European allies, are still thinking about the problem of proliferation as we did prior to that fateful day, as a problem that was too costly to deal with definitively and could be dealt with expediently by being put off to another day. They will not share President Bush’s determination to act until proliferation results in a weapon of mass destruction being used against us or them.

Faced with this attitude, the administration has announced that it prefers to act against proliferation with allies but will act alone if necessary. We can do much on our own, but to do it we will probably have to spend considerably more than we are currently planning on spending for the military and homeland defense. But even with vastly increased spending, we will not be able to do all that is necessary by ourselves. Using military force against Iraq, for example, will require the assistance of at least some of the countries that border it (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Jordan) and others near and far who will grant basing and overflight rights. Policing companies that sell the means of mass destruction, a fundamental requirement for stopping proliferation, is not something that any degree of military force can do. It is something only our allies, the other industrialized nations, can accomplish.

Over time, the requirements for allies in the war against proliferation and our desire to maintain the international cooperation necessary for success in the war on terrorism will probably turn the Bush administration away from a simple unilateral approach. This may already be happening. President Bush moderated his rhetoric about the axis of evil during his recent Asian tour.

In addition, the administration might be wise to make more progress in the war on terrorism before moving forward aggressively with a war on proliferation. President Bush was right to say in his State of the Union speech with regard to proliferation that time was not on our side. But the most immediate and pressing danger remains the terrorist networks that are still operating, recent reports claim, even in the United States. If the danger is that terrorists will use weapons of mass destruction, then destroying these networks will prevent this. We are closer to doing this now than we are to dealing with proliferators like Iraq or North Korea. Addressing this problem first will also focus the resources we have on one problem, while we increase them to deal with the other.

As we attack the terrorist networks, the administration can work with our allies on building a consensus to tackle the problem of proliferation. Sadly, absent an attack with weapons of mass destruction, such a consensus may not be attainable. Expediency may continue to rule. If it does not, it will only be because of the leadership of the United States, made resolute by the events of September 11.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.