Back in 2000, George Bush famously coined the phrase “Axis of Evil” in reference to three nations he felt were a malevolent presence on the world stage: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. While the phrase itself was criticized as simplistic and naive, Bush was doing publicly something that every President should at least do privately: Identifying the major threats to the security of the United States of America.
I thought it might be helpful to do a brief review of what those threats are today in 2008, and will continue to be in 2009 for the next President. I am defining “threat” as a danger to American lives, so I am setting aside for now factors such as industrial espionage and other attacks on our economy – these may well be extremely dangerous to the long-term prospertiy of our country, but are unlikely to cost lives in the near future.
Based on current and expected conditions, I see four major threats to the United States currently in the international arena. In order from greatest to least, they are:
1. AL QAEDA – Nothing is of greater concern than those here in America (mostly on the Left, it must be said) who dismiss Al Qaeda as no longer being able to pose a serious danger to the US. The fact that we have been able to avoid additional attacks on the American homeland since 9/11 has more to do with a lot of hard work by the intelligence community and the military than by lack of capacity or effort on the part of Al Qaeda. There is no reason to believe that the organization is not capable of launching another attack of the same scale as 9/11, although hopefully our ability to deter it is now greater.
More importantly, Al Qaeda is number one on the list because of all international actors, it is the only one actively seeking to kill and harm Americans as we speak. To the extent that the US has a Great Enemy in the world, Al Qaeda is it, and it has nothing to do with our policy on the Israeli-Palestinian question as the isolationists would have us believe. It’s based on the simple fact that Al Qaeda recgonizes America as the chief obstacle to its goal of a worldwide Islamic state. If they can find the means to harm us, they will do so without hesitation. Therefore, it stands to reason that eliminating Al Qaeda as an entity should be our number one foreign policy objective – and that is going to necessitate much greater political and military involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries such as Somalia and Indonesia.
2. NORTH KOREA – This may come as a surprise to some, but North Korea was made a member of the “Axis of Evil” for good reason. North Korea’s military, by itself, has only a limited ability to attack America. It has a huge army but is unable to project that power beyond the Korean peninsula, and its missile technology, while advancing, is no match for North American defense systems.
Rather, the biggest danger of North Korea is their ability and willingness to share nuclear technology with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. North Korea is a country on the verge of collapse, and that makes them dangerous and unpredictable. Handing over technology to terrorists is unlikely to be a policy of the North Korean government, which would stand to gain little for such an arrangement. What North Korea needs most is food, and Al Qaeda cannot give them that. However, should the leadership of the country go into flux, or should there be a loss of central control over military and scientific apparatus, it is easy to imagine some unscrupulous individual selling nuclear technology for personal enrichment.
I think the Bush Administration has taken the right tack with North Korea so far. A military approach would, if anything, increase the danger – even a huge victory for the US might create the kind of chaos and instability that is to be feared. Unfortunately, the North Koreans have weaseled out of living up to every agreement they have signed, when it comes down to verification. The Bush Administration’s strategy has been to try to work with China to put pressure on the North Koreans. Hopefully, Kim Jong Il will be succeeded by a capable leader with a more pragmatic stance toward working with the West.
3. PAKISTAN – This one may also come as a surprise to some. Pakistan has never been formally hostile to the US, and its government is a nominal US ally. However, the US is not viewed so positively by a large swath of the Pakistani people. Pakistan is currently harboring the leadership of Al Qaeda, and the tribespeople of the northwest provinces as well as significant segments of the Pakistani security apparatus are supporting them. Further, Pakistan has never had what I would call a stable government. It has had a long series of military coups, and the federal government’s control over the various regions is not nearly what it should be. Pakistan is a confirmed nuclear power, and there is a very real danger of nuclear technology falling into the wrong hands – we have seen this already to a degree with Abdul Qadeer Khan. Finally, Pakistan’s continual tensions with nuclear neighbor India raise the spectre of a possible nuclear conflict the like of which has never been seen.
The current government of Pakistan has every reason to want to work cooperatively with the United States. However, the pro-Taliban, pro-Al Qaeda elements of the ISI security organization must be eliminated in order for such cooperation to succeed. The US should also step up non-military assistance of all kinds to Pakistan. The more schools and hospitals that are built with American money, the more incentive the Pakistani people themselves will have to side with us against the terrorists.
4. IRAN – There are three reasons Iran is lower on the list than the other three. The first is that despite their rhetoric to the contrary, the US is not Iran’s primary enemy – Israel is. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology is dangerous, but it is primarily aimed at Israel, as is its support of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The Iranian people, by and large, do not hate Americans. The second reason is that Iran actually has a very stable government with civilian control of the military and a functional if warped democracy. Although they are always testing us to see what they can get away with, they are unlikely to do anything rash. The third reason is that Iran has no more interest in seeing a Sunni Islamist caliphate of the type envisioned by Al Qaeda than we do.
Militarily, Iran is not in a position to threaten the domestic US. Nevertheless, the prospect of Iran as a conduit for nuclear technology to terrorist groups is very real. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq has left a power vacuum in the Gulf that Iran is eager to fill. And any significant conflagration in the Middle East involving Israel would be disastrous for the US. Unfortunately, nuclear negotiations with Iran have been fruitless, as Iran is happy to stall for time and evade sanctions with the help of Russia and China. We should continue a carrot-and-stick approach, but we need to find better carrots and more effective sticks. Nor should we rule out direct US-Iran diplomacy if an opportunity presents itself. We must insist that Iran abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons and the support of terrorism in exchange for normalization of relations with the US, free trade and assistance with civilian nuclear technology, with safeguards. A prolonged war with Iran is not to be desired, although surgical strikes by the US and/or Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities cannot be ruled out.
Notably absent from the top four are Russia and China. Although these great nuclear powers have the ability to harm America, they have little incentive to do so. Russia does not have an economy capable of sustaining a war with the US, especially as the oil bubble is now bursting. Their geopolitical interests lie mainly around their own borders and have a lot to do with ensuring access to markets for their oil and natural gas. I would probably put them 5th on the list simply due to their nuclear arsenal, but Russia’s leadership is not insane enough to provoke a nuclear conflict with the US – nor are they interested in spreading nuclear technology and thus further diluting their own military advantages. Russia has its own problem with Islamic nationalism and has no sympathy whatsoever for Al Qaeda. As for China, there is no evidence that China has expansionist aims beyond reunification with Taiwan. There is no question that they are trying to increase their share of the world’s economic power, but that will have to come before any military adventurism. Although they do not always see eye to eye with the US on international issues such as Iran, they have shown no interest in proliferating nuclear technology. Like Russia, China has a Muslim minority problem in its western provinces and is not interested in supporting Islamic nationalism. China would be 6th on the list, only because of the possibility of being drawn into military conflict with the US if there is an escalation in Taiwan, which at the moment seems unlikely.
Whether Obama or McCain is elected President, the new Commander-In-Chief will have to focus primarily on these entities in constructing his foreign policy. Of course, there are other important areas too – relations with Canada and Mexico, free trade agreements with allies such as Colombia, and the eternal quest for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But the primary goal of our foreign policy should always be to protect the lives and liberty of Americans here at home, and that can’t be done without a realistic assessment of the threats we face.