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The Failure of Regime Change

Axis of Evil More Dangerous Now, But Bush Foreign Policy Mistakes Can Be Reversed

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Five years ago President Bush used America’s anger at the 9/11 terrorist attacks to propel a preconceived, radical change in foreign policy. Rather than finish the job of destroying al-Qaeda and their Taliban allies in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan, Bush targeted an “axis of evil,” Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, and unveiled a policy of preventive war.

America, he claimed, would be safer if “regime change” became the polestar of U.S. foreign policy. His core advisors swiftly began implementing the strategy they had hatched in Washington’s neoconservative thinks tanks, overruling policy professionals and military leaders and manipulating the U.S. intelligence agencies for the false evidence needed to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The disastrous consequences are evident everyday on the streets of Iraq, but they are even more dangerously on display in Iran and North Korea, where nuclear development programs that could one day threaten America actually accelerated.

These programs are real dangers, but they had been contained under previous administrations. The new policies shattered the barriers that had held them in check. The invasion of a state that did not have nuclear weapons produced chaos in Iraq, weakened our military forces, and diverted U.S. attention from other, more pressing nuclear challenges in North Korea and Iran.

Both states took advantage. Both advanced their nuclear programs more in the past five years than they had in the previous ten. North Korea ended the freeze of its plutonium program and increased its estimated supply from enough for two weapons to enough for perhaps 12. If it reprocesses another load of reactor fuel, as it threatens to do, the stockpile goes up by another five or six. If it continues its tests, it could perfect its bomb design and shrink the package to one that a plane or medium-range missile could carry.

Last weekend on FOX News, anchor Chris Wallace mocked Senator John Kerry for saying:

They tell us the North Korean nuclear test is the fault of Bill Clinton. That is a lie. North Korea’s nuclear program was frozen under Bill Clinton. When George W Bush turned his back on diplomacy, Kim Jong IL turned back to bomb-making – and the world is less safe because a madman has the Bush Bomb.

But Kerry is correct. North Korea made all of its plutonium either under this President Bush (enough for an estimated nine to ten bombs) or the first President Bush (enough for perhaps one or two bombs). North Korea did not separate any plutonium or make any bombs during President Clinton’s eight years. These truly are Bush’s bombs.

Bush officials, of course, angrily reject these facts. They and their supporters scramble to find someone else to blame. Targets include Bill Clinton, China, Russia, South Korea—anyone but themselves. But it is harder and harder to deny the obvious: the strategy of preventive war and serial “regime change” has made America less safe.

There is a clear alternative, used by many policy and military leaders. Modern American foreign policy boasts a set of diplomatic, economic, and military tools known collectively as the policy of containment that have stood the test of time. President Bush’s nine predecessors in one fashion or another deployed these tools to end the Korean War, win the Cold War, extricate our military forces from Vietnam, forge an international coalition to win the first Gulf War, and craft a lasting peace in the Balkans.

Indeed, the Bush administration could have built on these containment successes following 9/11 and our subsequent invasion of Afghanistan with the backing of the United Nations and our NATO allies. The Bush administration six years ago inherited practical and effective diplomatic efforts at containing possible threats to America posed by North Korea, Iran, Libya, and even Iraq, alongside detailed intelligence of the dire threat posed by al-Qaeda. But the Bush brigade squandered almost every opportunity to capitalize on those previous efforts.

Later this week, the Center for American Progress will publish a timeline detailing the failures of regime change and the alternatives that could have been pursued to contain the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran and win the war in Afghanistan. Our purpose: to illustrate that it’s not too late for the Bush administration and Congress to change course.

For more in the Center’s foreign policy prescriptions and analysis, please go to the National Security home page at the Center’s website, where later this week you will also find our Failure of Regime Change timeline.

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