Following the September 11th
attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, then-President George W. Bush named the emerging threats we faced. He told a State of the Union audience in early 2002 that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, “and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” Mocked at the time, that description has proven exceptionally prescient.
Successfully making hard choices starts with a willingness to courageously make clear assessments, and the refusal of Washington’s policy establishment to endorse and act on President Bush’s warning foreboded future policy failures.
Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher described the "axis of evil" phrase as "a speechwriter’s dream and a policy-maker’s nightmare.” Graham Allison, the highly respected former dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, told the Los Angeles Times that “the 'axis' suggested a relationship among the entities that doesn't exist.” But it did. And because of our unwillingness to confront these two rogue states, Iran and North Korea, it still does.
Even before the Axis of Evil phrase was first uttered, it was widely recognized that North Korea had provided the design and components for the Iranian Shahab-3 intermediate range missile in the 1990s. In January 2001, a year before the speech, outgoing Secretary of Defense William Cohen briefed his successor on the growing military links between North Korea and Iran.
Yet, in the years following the speech, North Korea continued to supply a variety of weapons and technology to Iran in return for cold hard cash. In November 2010, The New York Times, citing “secret American intelligence assessments” published by Wikileaks, reported that North Korea had supplied Iran with 19 intermediate range missiles in 2006 with a range of up to 2,000 miles. This was later confirmed by an Iranian missile test in 2016.
The U.S. Intelligence Community knew this — and much else — back in 2006. Yet in one of the first signal failures to match policy to rhetoric, the Bush Administration negotiated an agreement with North Korea that relieved it of its obligation to issue a “complete and correct” declaration of its nuclear programs. In doing so, it passed the buck on dealing with North Korea over its nuclear collaboration with Iran.
That failure was compounded by another when, in the same year, the Bush Administration removed North Korea from the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Eight years of the Obama Administration did not materially disrupt this growing relationship between Pyongyang and Tehran. In 2010, Reuters quoted “an intelligence report” stating that North Korean nuclear scientists were collaborating with the Iranians on nuclear technology. In September 2012, Iran and North Korea even publicly signed a technology sharing agreement.
Instead of correcting the Bush Administration’s mistaken course by reinstating North Korea to the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, the Obama Administration practiced a policy of “strategic patience” — ostensibly ignoring Pyongyang’s belligerence and proliferation activities.
At the other end of the Axis, the Obama White House pursued its disastrous negotiations with Iran, ultimately obtaining a temporary pause in Tehran’s rush to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief and a tacit green light to overrun Iraq and Syria.
Despite being called out more than fifteen years ago, the remaining two-thirds of the Axis of Evil are stronger than ever today and the third, Iraq, has largely been swallowed by Iran.
North Korea now threatens our closest allies in Asia and is on the path toward being able to deliver nuclear payloads to American soil.
Iran has emerged as the dominant regional power in the Middle East. With Russia’s assistance, it now controls four Arab capitals and is within striking distance of destroying the security architecture America carefully constructed over the past seventy years.
This is the result of a bipartisan dereliction of duty. The Trump Administration, however, may finally be recognizing that “strategic patience” in the face of a growing threat inevitably leads to even greater strategic disaster. Some of its recent moves to intensify the pressure on North Korea and Iran constitute important incremental steps in the right direction.
America has spent the last sixteen years trying to wish away the existence of the Axis of Evil. What was needed then is still needed now: a clear-eyed assessment of the threats North Korea and Iran pose to our national security and a willingness on the part of the political class and our military leadership to make the increasingly hard choices necessary to confront them.
Gary M. Osen litigates terrorist financing, state-sponsored terrorism and U.S. anti-terrorism law cases in federal courts. He served as lead trial counsel in the landmark Linde v. Arab Bank, Plc case, which resulted in the first, and still only, jury verdict against a financial institution under the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act. For Gary’s work on that matter, he was named one of Public Justice’s Trial Lawyers of the Year in 2016. Gary currently serves as co-lead counsel in five major terrorism-related cases pending in federal courts: Karcher v. Iran; Freeman v. HSBC Holdings Plc, et al.; Shaffer v. Deutsche Bank AG; Strauss v. Crédit Lyonnais, S.A. and Weiss v. National Westminster Bank Plc. The New York Times has recognized Gary as "an internationally consulted legal authority on terror financing." Businessweek has also noted that "Osen is doing what good lawyers do: capitalize on how jurisprudence evolves to fit the times." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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