When President Bush included North Korea in the axis of evil last year, foreign policy experts concluded that he was a moron. On the basis of years of scholarship and close study, the experts pointed out that Iran, Iraq and North Korea were – I quote – "different countries." As Tony Cordesman, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained, "these are three very different countries here." USA Today sniffed that there was no axis because, "The countries have more differences than similarities." Koreans don't even look like Iranians.
Moreover, as the ponderer class repeatedly reminded us, President Clinton had struck up a brilliant agreement with the North Koreans in 1994, with guidance from Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jimmy Carter. The deal consisted of this fair trade: The Clinton administration promised North Korea 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually and $4 billion to construct a pair of nuclear reactors for "electricity"; in exchange, North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
We were assured that the North Koreans had been peaceful little lambs since then. As Clinton himself said of North Korea, "I figure I left the next administration with a big foreign policy win." Alas, he said, Bush had squandered that "win." Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, concurred: "When we left office, we left on the table the potential of a verifiable agreement to stop the export (from North Korea) of missile technology."
USA Today said that "even critics concede the regime seems to have kept its promises so far regarding nuclear weapons and missile tests." But Bush had botched the peace agreement with his "hot-war posturing" – "a simplistic policy of hubris that alienates allies and inflames problems that can be managed more benignly."
The principal area of disagreement among the ponderers was what on earth could have provoked Bush to call North Korea part of the axis of evil in the first place. One popular explanation was ... Enron! Antony Blinken, a Clinton national security staffer, said Bush's axis of evil gambit was intended to distract the public's attention from "things less comfortable, like the economy and the Enron scandal."
Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, took a break from denouncing America's treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo to opine that "Bush's State of the Union speech was best understood by the fact that there are mid-term congressional elections coming up in November."
Robert Scheer wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Bush's axis of evil drivel was the "rationale for a grossly expanded military budget." Throwing North Korea into the mix was an obvious scam, Scheer said, because, "North Korea is a tottering relic of a state whose nuclear operation was about to be bought off under the skilled leadership of the South Korean government when Bush jettisoned the deal."
And then in October 2002, the North Koreans admitted that immediately after signing Clinton's 1994 "peace" agreement, they had set to work building nuclear weapons. A few months after that, U.S. intelligence forces tracked an unmarked ship carrying Scud missiles from North Korea to Yemen.
It was beginning to look like an "axis of evil." The experts had never paused to consider the possibility that Bush had called North Korea part of an "axis of evil" because North Korea was part of an axis of evil.
With impeccable timing, just two weeks before North Korea admitted it had been feverishly developing nuclear weapons since the mid-'90s, New York Times columnist Bill Keller snootily referred to North Korea as among "the countries the White House insists on calling the axis of evil."
A week later – or one week before North Korea owned up to its nuclear weapons program – Keller's op-ed rival at the Times, Nicholas Kristof, wrote: "In 1994 the vogue threat changed, and hawks pressed hard for a military confrontation with North Korea. ... In retrospect, it is clear that the hawks were wrong about confronting North Korea. Containment and deterrence so far have worked instead, kind of, just as they have kind-of worked to restrain Iraq over the last 11 years, and we saved thousands of lives by pressing diplomatic solutions."
Instead of owning up to their ludicrous attacks on Bush and unrestrained praise for Clinton's "peace" agreement, the ponderers once again concluded that Bush was a moron. Bush, it seems, had somehow provoked the North Koreans to build nuclear weapons by being mean to them. Robert J. Einhorn, who helped negotiate Clinton's masterful 1994 peace deal, said Bush's "tough rhetoric" had "unnerved the North Koreans." Derek Mitchell, another veteran of the Clinton administration, agreed: "We did call them the 'axis of evil.'"
Time magazine was a rare voice of honesty amid the claptrap. "In January, Bush said the three states were seeking weapons of mass destruction and posed a grave and growing danger." On the evidence, Time said, "he's right."