It was the first State of the Union address after the 9/11 attacks, and America was leading an invasion of Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Fittingly, this is where President George W. Bush began on Jan. 29, 2002: "As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers."
Then, about halfway through the address, Bush started to sketch the perceived perils and coined a three-word phrase: "axis of evil" — Iran, Iraq and North Korea. "In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic."
It turned out to be advance billing for the bloodshed, brinksmanship and frustration that would dominate the Bush White House and be passed on to Barack Obama. Ten years later, America still is at war, and the three points on Bush's "axis" are profoundly different. North Korea has exploded two nuclear-test devices; Iran is alleged to harbor nuclear ambitions; and Iraq, which was to have been the democratic showcase of the Bush foreign policy, still is a shaky prospect bedeviled by factional violence.
Back on Jan. 29, 2002, as Bush delivered that State of the Union address, Iran seemed from the West's perspective to be the least menacing point on the axis. Its president, Mohammad Khatami, was a moderate, hard-line voices were muted and there were hints of breakthrough cooperation in Afghanistan after the U.S. toppled the Taliban, which was hated by Tehran.
But the U.S. deeply opposes Iran's aid to Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian faction Hamas, and today, Iran's Islamic leaders and their U.S.-led opponents are in a 21st century version of Cold War showdowns.
U.S. and European sanctions are taking aim at Iran's critical oil exports as part of escalating economic pressures. Cyber warfare and assassinations are claimed by Iran to be part of an Israeli campaign to abort its nuclear effort. Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, the pathway for about one-fifth of the world's oil, and U.S. and European warships have responded with a show of muscle.
"We're much closer to moving from a cold conflict to a hot conflict, because Iran has moved forward with their nuclear program," Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian affairs expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an interview with National Public Radio for the 10th anniversary of Bush's speech. "But I would say that Iran truly is more isolated than it's ever been."
In Iraq, Bush's 2002 speech was not broadcast live, but the next day Saddam Hussein's government was claiming America was massing troops on the borders and was about to invade. Fourteen months later a U.S.-led force poured into Iraq after another type of state-sponsored call to arms: Washington's claim that Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.
No such arsenal was ever discovered, but other merciless forces were unleashed in the form of sectarian conflict between the Sunnis, who lost their privileged status bestowed by Saddam, and the majority Shiites, who had suffered relentless repression by his regime.
For years, the U.S. military was the besieged caretaker of a country on the brink of civil war. The fighting veered in many directions: Shiite militias targeting U.S. troops or running nighttime Sunni-hunting death squads; Sunni insurgents inspired by al-Qaida carrying out suicide bombings and other attacks against Shiites; Iranian-backed Shiite factions becoming so deadly proficient with roadside bombs that they became the chief killer of U.S. soldiers.
The withdrawal of the last American forces in December closed the door on more than seven years of combat, but left a whole new political landscape in which Iraq, a bulwark against Iranian power during Saddam's era, may become Iran's best Middle Eastern ally.
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