With fall in the air, the election just around the corner and the baseball playoffs in full swing, it’s time for campaigns and columnists to break out the ballpark metaphors and examine the choice before us.
Undecided or wavering voters out there who still don’t know whom to root for would do well to take a good look at President George W. Bush’s batting average against the “axis of evil”: the grouping of Iraq, Iran and North Korea that he so famously laid out in his 2002 State of the Union address. More specifically, these voters should look at how the president is doing at stopping these countries from developing nuclear weapons, which he has repeatedly identified as the greatest threat to the American people.
The problem – for all of us – is that Bush is batting zero for three.
In the first of these countries, Iraq, the story is all too clear. As so many reports have confirmed, we went to the wrong place. Warning us that they didn’t want the smoking gun to be a “mushroom cloud,” the president and his advisers launched the invasion and have since spent upward of $800 million searching for weapons that don’t exist.
More ominously, and below the radar, the president is failing to stop what his top advisers call Iraq’s one great existing nuclear threat: the pool of free-floating Iraqi scientists and engineers who once upon a time actually tried to develop a nuclear weapons program for Saddam Hussein. The White House has failed to back a $16 million Department of State program to retrain these people and help them find new lines of work – instead leaving them on the streets, ready to offer up their services to the highest bidder.
Iran, the second member of the axis of evil, has meanwhile taken a huge leap forward in its quest for nuclear weapons.
After three years of cat-and-mouse, Iran has begun in the past few months to convert tons of uranium into gas, a crucial step in producing the weapons-grade nuclear fuel that’s required to build a bomb. Although Iran’s leaders publicly promise interest purely in “peaceful nuclear technology,” they make such announcements against the background of parades of Shahab-3 missiles draped with banners urging their people to “Crush America” and “Wipe Israel Off the Map.”
Bush’s actions toward Iran have significantly set us back. By grouping Iran in the axis of evil and constantly advertising the virtue of pre-emptive strikes, he has encouraged Tehran hard-liners and shut down any who might have counseled a slower nuclear course. Through enormous indecision, he failed to bridge the deep divide among his own advisers about how to approach Iran. Finally, he handed over responsibility for dealing with this critical threat to the very European allies – including, for the record, France – in whose hands he has pledged never to place America’s fate. Today Iran is achieving its nuclear ambitions and increasing its powerful position in the region.
The last member of the axis is North Korea, led by one of the world’s most erratic and dangerous governments. Here, consider just two facts: First, since Bush took office, Kim Jong Il, most experts say, has quadrupled his nuclear arsenal – from no more than two to as many as eight. Second, the international community has lost its hard-won ability to monitor activities inside Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities.
As in the Iranian situation, the president’s failure to settle divisions among his advisers has sent our policy on a lurching and uncertain course. Paralyzed at the plate, the president has left China – which he once called our strategic adversary – in charge of this volatile situation. Today the United States lacks the leverage to make a difference while Kim is busily building bombs.
During the debates, the exchanges between Bush and Sen. John Kerry on North Korea no doubt left many confused. But if we are to take the president at his word and judge him by results, the facts are clear: North Korea is more of a nuclear threat today than it was when he placed it in the axis 3�???? years ago.
As we look back at the presidency of Bush, the phrase “axis of evil” has already taken its historical place as shorthand for bombast and misjudgment. In this electoral season, the president’s record against these enemies provides reason enough to send him back to the minor leagues.
Robert Boorstin is the senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress.
Copyright © 2004 The Columbia Daily Tribune.