The Real Axis of Evil

In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush named Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an axis of evil, “arming to threaten the peace of the world.” The charge leveled at those countries concerned their development of weapons of mass destruction and whether “they could provide these arms to terrorists.” From the start, North Korea was the “odd man out” because it had little in common with the other two axis members. Now that the war in Iraq is ending, it’s clear who the real axis of evil is: Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

The current rhetoric about Syria is déjà vu. It’s almost like an instant replay of what was said about Iraq. Syria has weapons of mass destruction. Syria supports and harbors terrorists. Add to this the claims that Syria supplied the Iraqi military with night vision goggles and allowed Islamic fighters to cross the border to fight against U.S. forces, and that Syria has allowed Iraqi leaders (perhaps even Saddam Hussein himself) to flee across its border.

Some of the accusations by the Bush administration include the following: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said that Syria is “behaving badly” and that “there’s got to be change in Syria.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “the Syrians need to know … they’ll be held accountable.” Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Syria “should review their actions and their behavior” and that the administration will “examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature.” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said, “Syria needs to cooperate” and that “rogue nations need to clean up their act.” And President Bush said he believes that “there are chemical weapons in Syria” and that he is “serious about stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction.” It’s clear where all this is leading. It seems that the drums of war are beating, again. Maybe not for an immediate invasion of Syria. But it lays the groundwork for a future invasion.

To be sure, Powell and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw have given assurances that there are no war plans for military action against Syria right now. But the same thing was said about Iraq last summer. And the Pentagon undoubtedly has contingency plans that could be used for Syria.

Many people were willing to support U.S. military action against Iraq because they thought the policy was just about Iraq. But Iraq was never just about getting rid of Saddam. Just prior to going to war, President Bush unveiled what the U.S. policy was about. In February, he argued that Iraq was a first step “in the spread of democratic values” and the beginning of “a new stage in Middle East peace.” Ultimately, the war on Iraq is the implementation of the new U.S. national security strategy “based on a distinctly American internationalism” designed to “make the world not just safer but better.”

So it should come as no surprise that the task at hand is still incomplete and that Syria is a likely next target. The reasoning follows a parallel path to Iraq. Because the first Gulf War left Hussein in power, there was unfinished business that necessitated the current U.S. military action. It would be imprudent to allow the same thing to happen again. If Syria is harboring Iraqi leaders, building weapons of mass destruction (the Israelis have accused Iraq of transferring missiles and weapons of mass destruction into Syria), and supporting and harboring terrorists (even if those terrorist groups — Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad — do not currently attack the United States), then U.S. national security would demand that the U.S. military continue down the road to Damascus.

The truth is — much like Iraq — that Syria’s weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism do not represent a direct threat to the United States. And rather than trying to beat Syria into submission and increasing the U.S. military presence in the region, the administration needs to develop an exit strategy to remove U.S. troops from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. That will do more to lessen the threat of terrorism against America than regime change in Damascus.

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.