Is the world safer now?

Steven L. Spiegel is a professor of political science at UCLA. He is working on a book on the debate over U.S. policy in the Middle East.

ON JAN. 29, 2002, President Bush infamously singled out three countries for his “axis of evil”: North Korea, Iran and Iraq. But the number of words he devoted to each revealed a great deal about his intentions: 17 to North Korea, 19 to Iran and 84 to Iraq.

The president suggested that these three states posed grave danger not only because they sought to develop WMD but because they could share such weapons with terrorists. By devoting more words to Iraq, Bush began making a case that would later become familiar to Americans: Iraq was this nation’s most serious threat.

Yet we now know that Iraq was not the closest to developing WMD. North Korea already had them. Iraq also was not the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. The State Department bestowed that description on Iran. The United States had no evidence that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had shared dangerous weapons with terrorists or had any intention of doing so.

So what made Baghdad the capital of evil in the world?


A strong case could have been made for Iraq because Hussein was a serial aggressor. Barring international steps against him, he could have followed his attacks on Iran and Kuwait with aggression against other countries (Saudi Arabia in particular, or perhaps Jordan or Israel). But Bush did not make this argument in that 2002 State of the Union address. Instead, he pointed out that Hussein had used chemical weapons against his own citizens (the Kurds) in the late 1980s, ousted international inspectors and allegedly plotted to develop WMD for over a decade.

“This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world,” Bush said, not realizing that Hussein actually was hiding the fact that he no longer possessed WMD.

Had the administration argued instead that Hussein would develop these weapons if he could, or that the sanctions on his regime were becoming less effective, the argument for the war might have been more accurate. But it also would have been less convincing. So the president declared Iraq evil based on Hussein’s intentions, not his capacity.

Terrorists, of course, did pose a real threat. But by invading Iraq, the United States transformed a net exporter of evil to a net importer, turning an aggressor state into a terrorist victim, creating a country that has become the suicide-bombing capital of the world. Iraq will undoubtedly become what Afghanistan was before 9/11: the battlefield in which contemporary terrorists are trained.

Because the White House’s central objectives of thwarting weapons proliferation and terrorism did not succeed in Iraq, the administration and many of its supporters have shifted the focus, arguing that the war’s primary purpose was to create a new democratic movement in the Middle East. The administration does deserve credit for promoting democracy in the region, though the word itself was never mentioned in the “axis of evil” speech. Yet the troubled invasion of Iraq has hardly advanced the cause. Although Iraq has held elections, and a great many Shiites and Kurds turned out to vote, the Sunnis have not embraced the new government -- and the insurgency grows. The discovery last month of a Shiite torture operation against Sunnis only deepens the mistrust. All the while, secularists of all backgrounds are not pleased by the growing influence of what they dismissively call the “turbans,” the religious sector of the population.

Since the invasion, other Arab governments have spoken in favor of Middle East democracy. But most of those statements, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have amounted to nothing more than talk intended to assuage the Americans. Only in Lebanon and Palestine has democracy made substantial advances. In both, the breakthroughs can be attributed more to the deaths of Syrian and Palestinian leaders than to the invasion of Iraq.

Ironically, “axis of evil” member Iran appears to be the greatest beneficiary of the U.S.-led invasion. Tehran no longer has an archenemy on its frontier, and the war has led to a recrudescence of fellow Shiites throughout the region, especially in Iraq. Admittedly, deep differences exist between Shiites in the two countries. Yet the paradox of the U.S. attack and the mismanaged occupation it wrought -- a Katrina on the Euphrates -- has been to increase the Iranian threat to the United States, Israel and the Arab moderates of the region.

The invasion to destroy evils managed to destroy just one -- Hussein. But it bolstered a more complex and varied evil -- terrorists. Americans now preoccupied with consequences of the invasion are left only to debate the efficacy of it in the first place.