In his first State of the Union Address in January 2002, George W. Bush
deployed the expression "axis of evil" to describe the governments of Iraq,
Iran, and North Korea. Critics jumped on the president for his belligerent
rhetoric. But the problem with Bush's formulation wasn't his use of the term
"evil," a perfectly apt description of the regimes of Saddam Hussein, the
Iranian mullahs, and Kim Jong-il. The real issue was with the "axis" part. With
the reference to the Axis powers of World War II, Bush suggested that there was
some sort of alliance or cooperation among these three enemies of the United
States. His turn of phrase indicated that they represented a unitary problem and
implied that in taking on one, America would be dealing with all three.
Nearly five years later, we can see the damage caused by the
president's too-cute slogan and the muddled thinking behind it. By failing to
distinguish clearly among the overlapping security threats presented by rogue
states, nuclear proliferators, and supporters of terrorism, Bush helped bring
his own nightmare to life. Thanks to his foreign policy, many of the world's
dictators do now function as a kind of anti-American axis, in a way they didn't
when he made that speech.
Let's look back at the members circa 2002. Though they shared an
interest in proliferating and were all brutal violators of human rights, the
regimes in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea posed distinct and very different
problems for American foreign policy. Saddam's Baath fascists in Iraq were
shooting at American planes in the no-fly zone and defying the international
community over sanctions and inspections. But as we now know, they weren't major sponsors of terrorism, and were nowhere near building, buying, or giving nukes to others. The theocrats in Iran, on the other hand, had a long history of
backing anti-American terrorists and presented a longer-term proliferation
threat. North Korea's Stalinists were stroking their fuel rods, menacing the
South as usual, and counterfeiting dollars, but not supporting terrorism. All
three regimes were hostile to the United States, but their animosity wasn't
synchronized in any meaningful way.
Now, consider the axis today. Our attacking Iraq prompted Muammar
Qaddafi, a Little Brother of Evil, to put up his hands and surrender his nuclear
effort. But Iran and North Korea drew from Bush's idealist invasion the realist
lesson that only a nuclear deterrent could preserve them from regime change.
Kim, in particular, seems to have taken the point that the American war machine
could instantly pulverize his tanks and missiles massed along the DMZ. This
meant he needed to accelerate his deterrent efforts by trying out his
Pacific-spanning Long Dong missile and cramming for a nuclear test. Bush's
adamant policy of nondiscussion made matters worse, ensuring that neither
country would slow down or back away from its atomic rush. He might just as well
have announced a prize for the first successful detonation.
But the president's biggest act of axis-enhancement was tying up our
military in Iraq and antagonizing our allies. While the global cop was busy in
Baghdad, the world's other worst villains staged a jailbreak. They understood
that Bush couldn't readily respond to their provocations with force. The
opportunity cost of occupying Iraq has also been felt in Syria and Sudan, among
the other places where evil has gone unchecked for want of effective American
leadership. At another level, our Bush- and Iraq-inspired unpopularity has
spurred an informal new post-Cold War anti-American International, with Hugo
Chávez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and George Galloway running for General Secretary.
Let it be acknowledged that Bush's obstinacy and belligerence didn't
create the predicaments we now face in Iran and North Korea. But his approach
has brought nearer threats that another set of policies might have deferred or
avoided entirely, and created a dangerous new cooperative dynamic among our
enemies. Thank you, Mr President, for giving us the axis of evil.
Rosa Brooks in the Los Angeles Times reports that it has been a great week for the Axis of Evil:
On the international front, the authoritarian regime in North Korea scored
a major victory, testing a nuclear weapon in defiance of the United States and
the world community. Sure, millions of North Koreans face potential famine, but
the "Dear Leader" himself — Kim Jong Il — is sitting pretty.
With dissidents tucked away in prison and scarce food supplies doled out
strictly on the basis of ideology and party loyalty, Kim has every reason to
indulge in a bit of self-congratulation. Technologically, his nuclear test may
have been only a partial success, but it sure did get the world's attention. As
the Korean Central News Agency — the "Dear Leader's" media mouthpiece — reported on Monday, this is "truly a stirring time when all the people of the country are making a great leap forward in the building of a great, prosperous, powerful
Elsewhere in the "axis of evil," things are also looking good. With the
world otherwise occupied, the authoritarian Iranian regime has continued to
suppress dissent and advance its own nuclear program, and it's surely heartened
by North Korea's "great leap forward."
Al Qaeda must be pleased by the news too. Because Kim has always made clear
his willingness to sell lethal technologies to the highest bidder, Al Qaeda has
another potential purveyor of nuclear weapons.
Even Saddam Hussein may be enjoying the week's news. After all, he's having
a ball at his Baghdad trial, while the U.S. struggles to respond to the rising
tide of violence in Iraq and is impotent against Iran and North Korea.
If the "axis of evil" keeps making great leaps forward, we may someday see
an Asia where a nuclear North Korea is a major power-broker, a Middle East where a nuclear Iran is a major power-broker, and a destabilized world where terrorist groups hold states hostage through their possession of nuclear
You may read Weisburg’s here and Brooks here in their entirety.