Wednesday, October 18, 2023

The axis of evil redux

 It’s been just over 20 years ago that George W. Bush coined the term “axis of evil.” In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush singled out Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. saying “states like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” The term came in for a lot of mockery, sounding like something from an Austin Powers film, but Bush’s grasp of international affairs has largely proved to be astute, if incomplete.

Two decades later, one member of the axis of evil has been the subject of regime change, but the other two are intact and still causing problems. I would add that there is now more clarity about other members of the axis of evil now than there was back in 2002. 

Photo credit: Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

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In Bush’s tenure, Vladimir Putin’s evil was not yet fully apparent. In 2001, Bush said of Putin, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."

Twenty years later, Bush’s opinion of Putin has changed considerably. The former president told Politico in 2022, “In [Putin’s] view the demise of the Soviet Union is bad for the Russian people, so we’re watching him try to reinstate Soviet hegemony. He picks weak people to do that. He thought Ukraine was weak, but it’s not. Ukraine is showing a backbone and a spine that this world sorely needs to see.”

In reality, Bush probably realized that he had misjudged Putin as early as 2008 when the Soviet Russian dictator invaded Georgia (the country that is, the state hasn’t been invaded since Sherman). The Atlantic Council notes that the invasion came less than six months after the Bucharest Summit, which agreed that both Georgia and Ukraine would be NATO members at some point in the future. The invasion was a direct challenge to Western unity and resolve. Russia’s subsequent invasions of Ukraine, beginning in 2014, proved the point. 

Russia isn’t the only newly disclosed member of the axis of evil. I would argue that China was also a stealth member even when the term was first coined. 

For decades now, China has been expanding its influence in the South China Sea and beyond. The Chinese military has built bases on small islands and atolls, making it difficult for the US to operate safely in Southeast Asian waters. The country has also been working to expand its influence into developing nations in Africa and the Pacific Rim. One of Trump’s worst errors may have been withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade coalition that was designed to marginalize Chinese influence. 

Iran is obviously still a prominent member of the axis. Although relatively quiet in recent years, Iran has become a major supplier for the Russian military. Much of Russia’s drone arsenal in Ukraine comes from Iran, but military cooperation between the two countries goes back much further. 

Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, Russia has been Iran’s primary arms supplier. Russia has transferred both weapons and technology to Iran while the two countries also shared intelligence. Russia has been helping Iran with its nuclear power program since 1992 as well as providing a state-of-the-art air defense system as recently as 2016. 

It is also well known that Iran holds Hamas’s leash. Hamas and Iran have been allies for decades and there is evidence that Iran provided training and logistical support to Hamas ahead of its attack on Israel. The mullahs may have gone further. The Wall Street Journal reports that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps was involved in planning the attack and may have even given Hamas the go-ahead. 

Finally, North Korea is the junior partner in the axis of evil, but the Hermit Kingdom stays relevant by firing off the occasional missile and supplying weapons to Russia’s army in Ukraine. In fact, a common denominator among the axis members is that they are all supplying arms to Moscow. Even China. And it’s definitely indicative of Russia’s isolation that the one-time global purveyor of arms is now being supplied by Iran and North Korea. 

There’s a lot of evidence that Iran was complicit in Hamas’s attack on Israel. The Journal cites senior Hamas and Hezbollah members who say that the attack was aimed at disrupting peace talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia. A treaty between the two countries would shift the balance of power in the Middle East in a direction that does not favor Iran.

But it may also be that Russia was complicit. Russia has courted Palestinian militants going way back to the days of the Cold War. Just this week, Russia introduced a resolution in the UN Security Council that condemned violence against civilians but pointedly failed to mention Hamas. The resolution failed but it is notable that one of the votes in favor was China. 

Whether Russia knew what was coming or not, Putin is happy to have the distraction from the debacle in Ukraine. Interestingly, the attack came on Putin’s birthday, October 7, and the Russian dictator will undoubtedly continue to stir the pot and provide cover for his Iranian allies. 

So what should the West do? Shay Khatiri, an old colleague from The Resurgent, opined on the platform formerly known as Twitter that the US should attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. To me, that seems like an exceptionally bad idea that would almost certainly result in a larger regional war. 

When the US killed the Iranian General Soleimani in 2019, Iran responded with a massive ballistic missile attack on a US airbase in Iraq. Miraculously, no Americans were killed in the attack, a fact which allowed Donald Trump to back down and not escalate further. War was narrowly averted in January 2020, but an attack on the Iranian homeland would certainly provoke a vigorous response that would be more difficult to ignore.

[As an aside, MAGA seems to veer between opposing wars, such as those in Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine (even though we aren’t actively involved there) and supporting other wars such as Afghanistan and Iran when it suits their mood. I’m old enough to remember MAGA cheering on Donald Trump’s threatened attack on Iran in January 2020. Mark Milley seems to have done much to avert that particular war, something else for which America owes him a debt of gratitude.]

Personally, I’d say that the best course for a war-weary America is to do what we are doing and keep supporting allied democracies that are willing to fight for their own freedom and independence. America’s role as the Arsenal of Democracy goes back to the days before World War II and we should embrace it now. We can’t fight evil everywhere, but we can give our allies the tools to fight for themselves. 

Not becoming directly involved has other strategic benefits as well. Oil prices spiked after Russia invaded Ukraine. It took years, but those prices have now come down to normal levels. As I gassed up for $2.67 per gallon at my local Sam’s Club this week, I pondered that this may be the first Middle East war that I can remember that didn’t cause gas prices to jump. 

The rub is that sanctions on Russian oil have made Iranian oil that much more important to world markets. Republicans have charged that the Biden Administration has permitted Iran to take in $80 billion in oil sales, but as Dr. Ellen Wald, an expert on energy at the Atlantic Council, explains, the truth is that higher world oil prices and increased Iranian production are responsible. She also points out that China is the primary buyer of Iranian oil, a fact that is true of Russian oil as well, once again illustrating the symbiotic relationship between three of the four members of the axis. 

This creates a strategic and economic problem for the West. Per the Energy Information Administration, the United States has been a net exporter of oil since 2020 (which is not the same as being energy-independent), but we also still import oil, primarily from Canada and Mexico. 

Our allies aren’t so lucky. The majority of Europe’s oil has to come from somewhere else, and even with our massive oil reserves, the US is still affected by world oil markets. If you don’t believe me, just think back to the price at the pump in the days after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. 

The bottom line is that cutting off the supply of Russian and Iranian oil threatens the economies of the West. It is an unfortunate fact of life that God put much of the world’s oil in countries that are run by authoritarian strongmen. Or maybe strongmen gravitate to oil-rich countries. It’s a version of the chicken-and-egg question, but in the end, what matters is that a lot of oil is in unfriendly hands.

The geopolitical situation right now reminds me a lot of the world in 1914. A while back, I wrote about World War I and how various international alliances turned a simple act of terrorism into one of the most wasteful and destructive wars in world history. It’s not inconceivable that something similar could happen today, especially if the players don’t hesitate to expand the conflict. 

Consider that Iran has already threatened to intervene if Israel launches an invasion of Gaza. If this happens, it could draw the US into the war since we have several defense treaties with Israel. If Iran is threatened, Russia and China might feel obligated to protect their ally. If the US is attacked, our NATO allies would be obligated to come to our aid, greatly expanding the war. A similar scenario could develop if the US attacks Iran and Iran retaliates. 

I do believe that the US should strongly resist evil around the world, but the reality is that we also need to tread carefully. The situation is bad enough when the war is limited to Israel and Hamas. It would be many times worse if it expanded into a regional or global conflict. 

To that end, I’m glad that President Biden is undertaking his trip to the Middle East. As Steve Berman wrote yesterday, Biden’s shuttle diplomacy may be able to simultaneously bolster support for Israel, help to isolate Hamas from the Arab countries, and intimidate Iran into staying on the sidelines. As part of that diplomacy - and in case it fails - there are not one but American two carrier battle groups deployed to the area. 

It may come down to war with Iran, but such a war would be disastrous from both a humanitarian and an economic perspective. Hamas’s savage act cannot go unpunished but that doesn’t mean that we should rush headlong into a war that could devastate the whole region or even the world. 

In 1914, the world went from peace to war in a matter of weeks due to a series of missteps, bluffs, and failed diplomatic overtures. Hopefully, our leaders will prove more capable than those who bungled the peace process a hundred years ago.

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GAZA BLAST: A hospital explosion that killed 500 in Gaza has endangered Biden’s peace mission. Hamas says the blast was the result of Israeli bombing while Israeli says a Hamas missile was to blame.

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