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U.S.: Can Bush Claim Credit For Libyan, Iranian Arms Inspections?

  • Andrew Tully

Two years ago, in his annual State of the Union address, U.S. President George W. Bush called Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an "axis of evil" that threatened their regions, and the world, with unconventional weapons. Since then, the United States has led a war to depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and Libya and Iran have taken concrete steps to cooperate with the international community over nuclear weapons and energy programs. Last night, in this year's State of the Union speech, Bush said his stern policy, realized militarily in Iraq, has had beneficial results beyond the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Washington, 21 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In his speech last night, Bush expressed pride that his hard-line policy on Iraq has influenced other nations to come clean on their weapons programs.

"Because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better," Bush said. "Last month, the leader of Libya voluntarily pledged to disclose and dismantle all of his regime's weapons of mass destruction programs, including a uranium-enrichment project for nuclear weapons. Colonel [Moammar] Qadafi correctly judged that his country would be better off and far more secure without weapons of mass murder."

In fact, Libya has finally decided to end its unconventional weapons programs, and is settling accounts with other countries, including its involvement in the bombing of an American jetliner over Scotland in 1988. Further, Iran has acknowledged that it conducted a secret uranium-enrichment program, although it says the goal was atomic energy, not weapons.

"While [Bush's] policy has certainly not been without cost, there have been some benefits as well, and clearly Libya is one of the best examples..."
There is evidence that even Syria, which the United States has for years condemned as a sponsor of terrorism, has responded to strong language from the Bush administration -- notably from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- to keep its border with Iraq from becoming an escape valve for Hussein's senior aides.

Some analysts say Bush is right to take credit for these developments. One is retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard, a former intelligence officer. Allard tells RFE/RL that Bush's strong words, followed by military action, are consistent with a longstanding American philosophy of foreign policy.

That approach is to "speak softly and carry a big stick" -- in other words, letting America's adversaries know that its diplomacy is backed with military might. Allard, speaking from New York, says Bush made that clear two years ago when he spoke of the "axis of evil," and last year again with the invasion of Iraq.

"You have to have taken President Bush very seriously as a result not only of what he said, but what he's done. That has clearly been the case not only in Libya, but also in Syria and in Iran, proving again the idea of 'speak softly but carry that big stick.' That's a very old prescription in American foreign policy, and it works," Allard says.

Allard at one time accused the Bush administration of mishandling the occupation of Iraq and of not being candid with the American people about the risks, including the number of casualties, that their country faces in Iraq.

Yet he believes the very fact that Bush deposed Hussein despite the objections of the United Nations and some major U.S. allies was enough to persuade countries such as Libya and Iran that they might face the same fate.

"While [Bush's] policy has certainly not been without cost, there have been some benefits as well, and clearly Libya is one of the best examples of that that you can point to. We have tried to crack that nut for 20 years," Allard says. "Now you can legitimately claim that because of the hard line on Iraq, that that problem has largely been solved."

Ted Galen Carpenter agrees, but only up to a point. Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private policy research center in Washington. He notes that the government of Moammar Qadafi has long been trying to repair its relations with the international community.

"[Bush's Iraq policy] very likely did have an effect on Libya, but it's also true that Libya was moving toward rejoining the international community for the last six, seven years. Its greater cooperation on [the] Lockerbie bombing incident, for example, its outreach to a lot of the European countries to try to get sanctions lifted -- all of this occurred even before George Bush was elected president."

As for Iran, Carpenter gives Europe and Russia most of the credit for persuading Tehran to be more transparent about its nuclear capabilities and open its research to the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency.

More specifically, Carpenter says, Moscow should be acknowledged for flatly telling Iran that it could expect no further help on its nuclear-power programs unless it could demonstrate that the technology was also not being used for weapons programs.

"With Iran, the diplomacy of the Europeans and the intervention of the Russians -- Moscow making it clear to Iran that Russian continuation of help on the [Iranian] nuclear program depended on Iran providing reliable evidence that that assistance was not being diverted to weapons production -- that probably was at least as influential as Bush's action in Iraq."

As for North Korea -- which Bush says sits on the "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran -- America's so-called "big stick" policy appears to have backfired. More than a year ago, Pyongyang announced that it had a well-developed nuclear-weapons program.

Rather than threaten military action, Bush has gotten Russia, China, and Japan involved in talks to persuade North Korea to abandon the effort. Since the invasion of Iraq, it seems Pyongyang has accelerated its weapons program.

"North Korea was much further along in its nuclear weapons program than Iraq, and certainly much further along than Libya," says Carpenter. "So I think the Iraq incentive, to the extent that it worked at all, went the other direction: it pushed North Korea into accelerating its efforts to develop a credible deterrent. And interestingly enough, [North Korea's] response appears to have been a viable strategy. The United States so far is treating North Korea with kid gloves."

Allard, the retired Army intelligence officer, acknowledges that Bush's forceful foreign policy has not resolved the North Korean confrontation. But he says the United States is well prepared to deal with a nuclear-armed adversary, especially one with so small an arsenal.

"We will deter them in the same, good old-fashioned way we were able to deter the Russians during the Cold War: 'How many [nuclear weapons] have you got? We have more than that, and if you get out of line, we'll use them against you.'"