The Magazine

Credible Threats

The strategic brilliance of Bush's "axis of evil."

Mar 11, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 25 • By JAMES D. MILLER
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CAN THREATS ALONE tame the axis of evil? In his State of the Union speech, President Bush promised to take preemptive action against Iran, Iraq, and North Korea if they don't abandon their efforts to foment terrorism and perfect weapons of mass destruction. The United States could inflict horrific damage on these countries and, more important, on their dictators. These three countries are ruled by selfish men. If they really believed that Bush would carry out his threat, then all three countries would probably yield. But is Bush's threat credible?

When the world's dominant power issues a military threat there are but three possible outcomes:

1. The threat is believed and the adversary acquiesces.

2. The threat is not believed but the United States backs down.

3. The threat is not believed and the United States goes to war.

It's true that the president indicated during his recent trip to Asia that the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea. The retraction of his threat to North Korea was a blunder. It made it less likely that his other threats would be believed. Saddam Hussein, for example, could be tempted to believe that since Bush backed down with North Korea, he might never attack Iraq.

Aside from the handling of North Korea, though, the administration has skillfully threatened the rest of the axis of evil, especially Iraq. The term "axis of evil" itself is a brilliant strategic utterance that increases the credibility of Bush's threat. When Bush promised that he would take action against the axis of evil, he clearly, simply, and memorably stated his objective. He thus insured that he will pay a political price if he does nothing against the tyrannical triad.

And even if Bush is beyond all crass political concerns, Iraq probably believes that he is driven by self-interest. Bush's threat thus gains credibility if it's thought that he is politically better off taking preemptive military action if Iraq doesn't yield to his demands. Consequently, Democrats could plausibly advance U.S. interests by saying that they fear a fresh war would help Republicans. Ideally, Iraq should believe that Bush is looking for any excuse to fight.

Jimmy Carter and the French foreign minister have said that the "axis of evil" phrase is simplistic and dangerous. Such publicly expressed sentiments show that these men themselves are unsophisticated and reckless. By labeling the phrase simplistic, these critics reveal their ignorance of its credibility-enhancing properties. Furthermore, by publicly expressing doubts about preemptive actions, they signal to Iraq that Bush will face considerable opposition if he ever attempts to carry out his threat.

If our allies don't support a preemptive strike, Bush must clearly indicate that he doesn't value our allies' opinions. Remember, Saddam is wondering if Bush really would attack. Anything that would make it more costly for Bush to take preemptive action makes his threat less believable. Colin Powell therefore acted deftly when he suggested that the French foreign minister was getting the vapors. By mocking the French, Powell made Bush's threat more credible because he signaled that the United States wouldn't care if we incurred Europe's disapproval.

To further ratchet up the pressure, Bush could impose a deadline for Iraq to comply with his demands. If this deadline passed with no action, Bush would look foolish. Consequently, Bush's desire to avoid humiliation would make his threat more credible.

Our enemies will comply only if non-compliance may have a heavy cost. Absent an immediate deadline, they will consider yielding only if they face some prospect of sudden assault. Consequently, if Bush is unwilling to impose a deadline, he must make Iraq fear a surprise attack.

Not including China in the axis of evil was tactically sound. China's atomic weapons probably put her beyond our military's reach. Had Bush included China it would have signaled that the axis of evil consisted of countries he morally disapproved of, rather than regimes he intends on challenging. Of course, to the degree Bush changed his mind about North Korea, it probably would have been better not to include it in the first place.

Press accounts indicate that the United States might be preparing to attack Iraq. Saddam surely knows that if we tried to remove him from power then we would prevail. Our goal, however, should be victory plain and simple. If we can achieve victory without further combat, all the better. If we can convince Saddam that we are willing to topple him, then he might back down, or others might topple him for us. The more credible a threat, the less likely it will have to be executed.

James D. Miller is an assistant professor of economics at Smith College.