Just four months after Sept. 11, George Bush identified Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the "axis of evil" and declared that defanging these rogue regimes was America's most urgent national security task. Bush will be judged on whether he succeeded.
Six years later and with time running out on this administration, the Bush legacy is clear: one for three. Contrary to current public opinion, Bush will have succeeded on Iraq, failed on Iran and fought North Korea to a draw.
¿ Iran. Bush has thrown in the towel on Iran's nuclear program because the intelligence bureaucracy, in a spectacularly successful coup, seized control of the policy with a National Intelligence Estimate that very misleadingly trumpeted the claim that Iran had halted its nuclear program. In fact, Iran halted only the least important component of its nuclear program, namely weaponization.
The hard part is the production of nuclear fuel. Iran continues enriching uranium with 3,000 centrifuges at work in open defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Once you have the necessary fuel, you can make the bomb in only a few months.
Thus to even speak of the Iranian program as having been stopped while enrichment continues is absurd. And that is true even if you discount recent dissidents' reports that the weaponization program, suspended in 2003, in fact resumed the following year contrary to the current NIE finding, offered with only "moderate confidence," that it has never been restarted.
The administration had to immediately release and accept the NIE's sensational conclusions because the report would have been leaked and the administration then accused of covering up good news to justify going to war, the assumption being that George Bush and Dick Cheney have a Patton-like lust for the smell of battle.
The administration understands that the NIE's distorted message that Iran has given up pursuing nukes has not only taken any military option off the table but also jeopardized any further sanctions against Iran. Making the best of the lost cause, Bush will now go through the motions until the end of his term, leaving the Iranian bomb to his successor.
¿ North Korea. We did get Kim Jong Il to disable his plutonium-producing program. The next step is for Pyongyang to disclose all nuclear activities. This means coming clean on past proliferation and on the clandestine uranium enrichment program that North Korea once admitted but now denies.
Knowing that we have no credible threats against North Korea, we now come bearing carrots. President Bush writes a personal letter to Kim, in essence entreating him to come clean on his nuclear program so we can proceed to full normalization.
Disabling the plutonium reactor is an achievement, and we do gain badly needed intelligence by simply being there on the ground to inspect. There is, however, no hope of North Korea giving up its existing nuclear weapons stockpile and little assurance that we will find, let alone disable, any clandestine programs. But lacking sticks, we take what we can.
¿ Iraq is a different story. Whatever our subsequent difficulties, our initial success definitively rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his monstrous sons. The Hussein dynasty will not as it would have, absent the U.S. invasion rebuild, rearm and threaten the world.
The taking down of Hussein led directly to Libya's full nuclear disarmament and, undoubtedly, to Iran's 2003 suspension of weaponization. As for Iraq itself, after three years of disorientation, the United States has finally found a winning counterinsurgency strategy.
It took Bush three years to find his general (as it did Lincoln) and turn a losing war into a winnable one. Baghdad and Washington are currently discussing a long-term basing agreement that could give the United States a permanent military presence in the region and a close cooperative relationship with the most important country in the Middle East heartland a major strategic achievement.
Nonetheless, the pressure on this administration and the next to get out prematurely will remain. There are those for whom our only objective in Iraq is reducing troop levels rather than securing a potentially critical Arab ally in a region of supreme strategic significance.
On North Korea and Iran, with no real options at hand, the Bush administration heads to the finish line doing what Sen. George Aiken once suggested for Vietnam: Declare victory and go home. With no good options available, those decisions are entirely understandable. But if Bush or his successor does an Aiken on Iraq, where success is a real option, history will judge him severely.