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World: Analysts Say Bush's Tough Talk May Undermine Terror Coalition

  • Alexandra Poolos

U.S. President George W. Bush's State of the Union address this week, in which he named Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the "axis of evil," triggered a wave of international criticism. Iraq and Iran condemned the speech, while China and Russia warned the U.S. not to use strong-arm methods in international diplomacy. NATO says allied defense support will not necessarily extend to any U.S. military action against the three states. Even Britain says it will keep talking to reformists in the Iranian government. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos speaks with international affairs experts who say the speech may have undermined the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.

Prague, 1 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In his State of the Union address on 29 January, U.S. President George W. Bush labeled North Korea a regime that is "starving its citizens" while arming itself with missiles; he called Iran an exporter of terrorism; and Iraq a hostile country actively developing weapons of mass destruction.

Bush emphasized that while the U.S. is seeking global cooperation in the fight against terrorism, it will not wait to confront countries developing "destructive weapons."

"I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

Bush reiterated his threats in subsequent speeches this week, calling on nations around the world to support the U.S. in taking a hard line against countries like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea because Washington says their weapons of mass destruction could strike anywhere.

Although Bush's attacks on those three countries -- the so-called "axis of evil" -- are largely seen as just rhetorical, his remarks angered many nations around the world and even seemed to surprise American allies.

Iraq quickly denounced Bush's remarks as "stupid," saying the U.S. government is the source of evil in the world. Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan told reporters in Baghdad that the statement was "inappropriate of the president of the biggest country" and blamed the U.S. and "the Zionist entity that follows it" -- a reference to Israel -- for "aggression toward the whole world."

Iran also reacted strongly toward being included in the "axis of evil." Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Bush "bloodthirsty," while reformist President Mohammad Khatami accused the American leader of "war-mongering," saying Bush's remarks are "truly insulting to the Iranian nation."

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson says the U.S. will not automatically get alliance backing if it expands its war on terror to Iraq, Iran, or North Korea. Robertson made the remarks yesterday while speaking to journalists in New York at the World Economic Forum.

NATO invoked Article 5 of its founding treaty after the 11 September terrorist attacks, saying they should be treated as an attack on all 19 alliance members. But Robertson said the U.S. will have to produce "convincing evidence" of a link between Iraq, Iran, and North Korea and the September attacks before NATO signs on to any new military actions.

Ali Ansari is an Iranian and Middle Eastern studies expert at the University of Durham. He tells RFE/RL that he believes Bush's speech was "ill-timed" and "pointless." He criticizes it for damaging a potential detente between the U.S. and Iran, saying it will punish reformist Iranian leaders.

"But unfortunately, rhetoric and political rhetoric of this nature does have an impact. And while it may have played well at home and while it may have satisfied certain American allies, I think certainly in the immediate sense it's probably made life more difficult in Iran for those arguing for a rapprochement and a detente with the United States."

Ansari says the criticism of Iran caused the most distress to European allies. In particular, Ansari points to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's statement yesterday that London intends to maintain a dialogue with reformists in the Iranian government. He says Straw's statement indicates frustration within the British government at Bush's speech.

"If you look at the speech, I think maybe Iran gets maybe two or three sentences, if you compare it to Iraq or even North Korea. But it's the issue of Iran that's caused the most irritation and frustration with the European allies. It is one of the questions that has been coming up -- was Jack Straw aware that Iran was an 'axis of evil' when he visited it twice? I mean, what does this mean? I think there's obviously been a lack of communication between the United States and Britain in this regard, but also with the European allies. And as with Iraq, I think the Americans will find that there will be strong differences of opinion in the approach to be taken."

Ansari says Bush's speech may not have immediate military implications, but he believes it will have an immediate political impact by alienating the U.S. from its European allies.

"I think it will [alienate the U.S. from the European Union]. I think there's no doubt it will. If you look at the European response to what's been going on in Palestine and Israel, there are clear differences emerging there between the policies of the United States and the European Union. I think Iraq has always been a major problem. The European Union does not want military action in Iraq, and now that Iran has been brought into the fray, well, once again I think the Europeans will be fairly disconcerted by this type of rhetoric. I don't think anyone seriously thinks the U.S. will pursue such a type of intervention. It would be complete nonsense if they did. But I don't think the Europeans find it very helpful that in such a major speech George Bush should use rhetoric that is totally unnecessary."

Bush didn't find strong support for his speech in Russia and China, both of which offered surprisingly strong support to the U.S. immediately after the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the U.S. this week not to use strong-arm tactics in international diplomacy. He said international relations "based on the domination of one center of force" make for a helpless pattern. China also condemned Bush's description of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, saying such terms can "harm the maintenance of world peace and stability."

Russian affairs analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov tells RFE/RL that although Bush's verbal attacks on Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were not warmly received by Putin, the speech itself is not likely to directly affect U.S.-Russian relations.

"I don't think [the speech] worries the Russian government. There were many things happening after September 11th. The euphoria of late September and early October is already gone. And of course Russia is more worried about the U.S. decision to quit the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] treaty -- which is considered to be the cornerstone of strategic stability -- then putting Russia into the list of countries supporting proliferation, State Department statements on Chechnya, on TV-6. These are things which worry Russia more than harsh rhetoric on Iran or North Korea. I don't think many people care about North Korea."

But Nikonov emphasizes that while seemingly just talk for now, he says "not much good" can come of Bush's statements. He says the speech could undermine the peace process on the Korean peninsula, thwart negotiations on weapons inspections in Iraq, and postpone an Iranian-American rapprochement for at least the next few years.