In a speech to Congress shortly after he became president, George W. Bush declared that an “axis of evil” existed between and among North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Perhaps the 43rd president was seeking the mantle of the 40th, Ronald Reagan, who called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” Regardless of motive, Bush’s characterization was one of the worst rhetorical blunders any president has ever made.
The catastrophic invasion of Iraq in March 2003 would follow. That intervention set the region afire and ultimately spawned the Islamic State aka Daesh with devastating consequences, not merely for the Middle East and Persian Gulf. A second consequence was ensuring that North Korea would pursue developing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles as a deterrent to American preferences for regime change. It is impossible to know that if Bush had used a different phrase whether Kim Jung Un would have taken the course of action he has. But clearly the intent did not help.
Ironically and hopefully not as tragically, President Donald Trump is recreating a newer and implicit version of Bush’s “axis of evil.” Syria has replaced Iraq. And the verbal chastising of North Korea and Iran has been amplified several fold. Additionally, the 58 Tomahawk cruise missiles that struck Syria and the 22,000-pound bomb dropped on Afghanistan could not be mistaken by Kim as anything but a direct threat to him. While the huge naval “armada” was not where Trump believed it to be, it too was a sign of strong-arm diplomacy.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed that Iran was not living up to the letter or the spirit of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was meant to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons for at least eight to 15 years and possibly forever. Its active engagement in Iraq, Syria and support of Hezbollah in Lebanon were reasons for continuing to declare Iran as the largest state supporter of terrorism by the secretary, even though many in the region dispute that label and would argue instead that America was not without blame for its interventions and support of opposition factions some regard as terrorists.
When Tillerson went to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, he had one significant diplomatic achievement. He and the Russians agreed that U.S.-Russian relations had never been worse since the Cold War ended. And that is supposed to be diplomacy at work?
What then is Trump thinking? What are his foreign policy goals? What are his policies and strategies for achieving those goals? Of course, National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster has hired Nadia Schadlow, a highly regarded analyst, to draft the administration’s new national security strategy. However, if that document follows most prior versions, it will be very long on aspirations and intentions and short on the means to achieve these desired end states. To make this point, it was not accidental that the Pentagon portion of the Obama administration’s last national security strategy was titled “The Defense Department Contribution to National Security.”
Where is all this headed? While Mosul ultimately will be retaken by Iraqi forces, Syria’s Raqqa may one day fall and IS driven out, that region is less not more stable and secure. The Assad regime remains empowered by Russia and shows no sign of lessening its barbaric tactics against the “opposition” it claims represents terrorist factions. And Russian “active measures” certainly have not disappeared or abated. The prognosis is not a happy one.
Making recommendations to this White House is an act of futility on steroids. That said however, the president would still be well advised to reconsider his means of dealing with Russia assuming he has some. Two actions are vital.
First, Trump should dispatch an envoy to Putin. That envoy must be experienced, wise, pragmatic and skilled. And that envoy cannot be his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Former secretaries of state or defense are obvious candidates from Colin Powell to John Kerry, both of whom know Putin and Lavrov well.
Next, arms control talks need to be convened, not because any agreement is in sight but because both sides need to understand the other much better than is the case today. Arms control talks in the past served as excellent means for mutual re-education. Given that Tillerson has no experience in such matter, talks would be enormously useful for him.
If Trump’s de facto declaration of a new axis of evil stands, the consequences are unlikely to be worse than Bush’s. However, do not expect much improvement either — a sobering foreign policy message.