Skip to main content

Empty Words

In his State of the Union address two years ago, President Bush shone a spotlight on Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, labeling them an axis of evil and declaring that America would deny them “the materials, technology, and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction.” Two years later, the Iraqi threat is gone, but Iran has moved closer to a nuclear weapons capability, and North Korea may have quadrupled its stockpile of nuclear bombs. But one would have been hard-pressed to guess that from this week’s State of the Union, where the president showed little sign of having learned the lessons of the past two years.

If there was any reformulation of the president’s strategy, it was summed up in his assessment of Libya’s recent decision to forgo unconventional arms, and, in particular, of that decision’s relationship to the invasion of Iraq. Why, the president asked, did twelve years of diplomacy with Iraq fail, while nine months of diplomacy with Libya paid off? “For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible, and no one can now doubt the word of America.”

Set aside for the moment whether this assessment is correct–even if it is, it fails to realize that no amount of credibility can compensate for the wrong policy. Nowhere was this more glaring than in the president’s discussion of North Korea, which occupied a scant one sentence in the hour-long address. America’s strategy against North Korea, by the president’s own account, is “insisting that North Korea eliminate its nuclear program.” Does North Korea find that insistence credible? Absolutely. But that’s almost useless, because the United States has no effective strategy to get from here to there. Perhaps the president might start by initiating bilateral discussions–presumably within the context of the six-party talks–and taking the opportunity to deploy a few more of those credible words to negotiate a solution. As the president noted, the Libyan settlement took nine months of direct negotiations; so far, the United States and North Korea have had none.


The president’s take on Iran (again one sentence) was hardly better: Along with the international community, the United States is “demanding that Iran meet its commitments and not develop nuclear weapons.” Though this is no doubt credible, it is both too concessionary and too unengaged. It is a step back from the administration’s prior (and correct) insistence that Iran be held not only to its existing commitments, but also be required to eliminate uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing activities that, while legal, might someday be used for nuclear weapons. And it focuses too much on making yet another demand without offering a mechanism–negotiations? economic coercion?–through which compliance might be obtained.

Unfortunately, the administration’s problems don’t stop here, because even its credibility is not what it claims. Under the headline “Arms Issue Seen as Hurting U.S. Credibility Abroad,” The Washington Post reported Monday that a wide spectrum of foreign policy experts had concluded that America’s prewar assertions about WMD had harmed America’s credibility in fighting weapons proliferation. Right now, the United States is faced with a possible split in its coalition against North Korea as China increasingly doubts American intelligence on Pyongyang’s arms. Similarly, the United States has had trouble convincing other states of Iran’s nuclear intentions, given the errors in assessing Saddam Hussein’s plans.

America’s credibility is also threatened by its inconsistent attention to proliferation problems. Despite its apparent proclivity for discretionary spending, the administration has been unable to find money to comprehensively secure loose nuclear materials in Russia. While the administration is right to argue that the totals some of its opponents have demanded are too high, doubling funding to two billion dollars annually would be smart: The returns on this additional spending, in terms of national security, would be astronomical. Moreover, the administration could show real commitment by investing the time in the diplomacy needed to break implementation roadblocks.

Worse, while the United States rightly hectors North Korea for selling missile technology, it stands almost passive as Pakistan peddles equipment for uranium enrichment. There are legitimate balancing questions concerning Pakistan: The United States doesn’t want to destabilize the current leadership with public confrontation; it shouldn’t cut aid too deeply, lest it force more Pakistanis into poverty and hence their children into the madrassas; and it shouldn’t weaken Pakistan so much militarily that it invites Indian aggression, or prevents it from policing the Afghan border. Still, there is room to maneuver in pushing Pakistan to clean up its act, but only if the administration firmly accepts the extent of the problem. As with so many other proliferation challenges facing the United States, the State of the Union address suggests it hasn’t.

Get daily updates from Brookings