September 10, 2006

A Key Foreign Policy Question

There is no shortage of diabolical actors on the world stage; this is beyond dispute. What is less clear is the extent to which singling out and aggressively confronting these actors ultimately strengthens or weakens them. This is a key foreign policy question in the age of global terrorism.

Immediately after 9/11 President Bush identified Al Qaeda as the greatest threat to American civilization, and made bold statements about wanting Osama bin Laden “dead or alive”. While a lot of the attention directed to Al Qaeda and its leader was justified, there is a growing body of opinion suggesting that it was not wise to elevate the organization to the status of a Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. Fighting terrorism is in many ways a war of ideas; while there is no doubt that Al Qaeda’s aims are as evil as those of the Nazis, their capabilities are not even remotely close.

It is worth considering whether we may have increased the prominence of Al Qaeda by publicly paying it so much due. That we have yet to find Osama has surely been a huge boon for recruiting terrorists, since they have a hero to worship who has outwitted the world’s most powerful military.

Shortly after 9/11 President Bush also famously referred to xml:namespace prefix = st1 />Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as members of the “axis of evil”. Many foreign policy hawks congratulated the president for his moral clarity, likening this statement to President Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”. One would have been hard-pressed to find a reasonable person who did not consider the governments of Iran, Iraq (under Saddam Hussein), and North Korea to be essentially evil, while also in possession of serious military capabilities, and even perhaps expansionist intent. However, from a pragmatic standpoint, it is an open question whether such a public attempt to antagonize these regimes was an effective strategy.

As of today, more than four years since Bush’s “axis of evil” reference, North Korea has accelerated its nuclear weapons program and shows no sign of slowing down; Iran is clearly in a stronger position than before, and has rejected Western demands to curtail its nuclear enrichment program. Many argue that by labeling these regimes as evil, and by refusing to engage in direct talks with them, the Bush Administration has driven itself into a corner. Military options are by almost all accounts not feasible, so that any resolution of American conflicts with these two regimes in all likelihood will ultimately involve some form of direct negotiations. One has to wonder whether starting from an open negotiating position years ago would have given us more leverage, especially since our intransigent stance seems only to have emboldened the most radical elements within these regimes.

While it is sometimes fair to criticize the left for its reluctance to label evil governments and leaders as such, there is also much to criticize about the right’s alacrity in this regard, especially when this precludes or makes more difficult any subsequent diplomatic endeavors and emboldens the worst elements within these regimes. Unfortunately, this may be one of the Bush Administration’s most lasting legacies.

Jason Scorse