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Ten years of ‘The Axis of Evil’ – the phrase that will live in infamy

Ten years of ‘The Axis of Evil’ – the phrase that will live in infamy

Over the years, a three-word phrase came to symbolise virtually the entire foreign policy framework of the Bush administration. The “Axis of Evil” and similar derivations has become shorthand for international bad behaviour, writes J BROOKS SPECTOR.

It is one of those classic life-imitates-art moments. Benzino Napaloni, the leader of Bacteria, and Tomania’s Adenoid Hynkel come together for their evil dictators’ meeting in Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film, “The Great Dictator”. That work was a magnificent cinematic axis of evil – or risibility – giving the perfect shape to authoritarian buffoonery; all without taking away from the actual viciousness of such posturing. Chaplin’s characters, of course, were mimicking – and ridiculing – the brooding Adolph Hitler and a strutting Benito Mussolini as the initiators of World War II’s Axis alliance.

Perhaps it comes as a shock to realize 29 January represents the tenth anniversary of George W Bush’s description of America’s enemies as the “The Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union (Sotu) speech – that international bad boys club that brought together Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

For Bush, his “Axis of Evil” was an alliance of countries, working together to assist international terrorism – and also working covertly to achieve nuclear weapons capabilities. Over the years, Bush administration figures would add – or occasionally subtract – nations from this alliance. Depending on who was speaking, Cuba, Belarus, Libya, Syria, Zimbabwe and Myanmar (as well as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and their allies) joined like associate junior members of a slightly recast, renamed, “Axis of Tyranny”.

In his State of the Union speech, Bush accused North Korea of being a “regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.” He then charged Iran as being a nation that “aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.” But, of course, the big kahuna was always Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Bush said that nation “continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens, leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children…. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.” Then came the clincher: “States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”

Clearly the term derived from the Axis nations of World War II, suitably recycled for contemporary circumstances and impact. But how did a three-word phrase come to symbolise virtually the entire foreign policy framework of the Bush administration?

The phrase came from one of Bush’s senior speechwriters, David Frum. Frum began his version with the word “hatred” but then eventually settled on “evil” as a punchier term. Frum said in his memoir of his time in the White House that head speechwriter, Michael Gerson, assigned Frum with the task of setting out the case, in a couple of sentences, for overturning Saddam Hussein’s government for Bush’s upcoming Sotu speech. Looking for a handle to make the case, Frum looked to Franklin Roosevelt’s 8 December 1941 speech after the Japanese attack on the US fleet in Pearl Harbour with its enduring phrase of a “date that will live in infamy”.

In Roosevelt’s case, while the argument for a national effort to defeat Japan was now very clear, the more complex task was to explain to the country why a two-front war – against both Japan and Germany – was now a necessity. Frum wrote that “For FDR, Pearl Harbour was not only an attack – it was a warning of future and worse attacks from another, even more dangerous enemy.” The recklessness of this Pearl Harbour attack spoke deeply about those nations’ menace to the world. Then, extrapolating freely, Frum reasoned that just as Japan and Germany’s recklessness had “made the Axis such a menace to world peace”, Saddam Hussein’s two wars – against Iran and Kuwait – presented the same threat to world peace.

Frum explained that the more he compared the Axis nations to contemporary “terror states”, the more parallels he found. “The Axis powers disliked and distrusted one another. Had the Axis somehow won the war, its members would quickly have turned on one another.” In like fashion, Iran, Iraq, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah, despite their sometimes intense violence and quarrels between themselves, all “resented [the] power of the West and Israel, and they all despised the humane values of democracy.” From there, it was just a short rhetorical hop, skip and a jump to a foreign policy manifesto that could fit on a postage stamp.

Frum sent forward his memorandum setting out this case. While he fully expected that his phrasing would be diced and sliced out of recognition by the time of the final text, his words actually ended up used almost as he had first set them out – although “hatred” became “evil” and North Korea was added into the mix because of its efforts towards achieving nuclear weapons status and its past historical actions as a rogue state. As an old hand at speechwriting, this writer notes that a trio or trinity in any litany always has a better sound to it than a simple pair.

But as French writer and philosopher Georges Bernanos once put it, “The worst, the most corrupting of lies, are problems poorly stated.” And that may be where the problems with this phrase and its influence on American policy begin. The countries grouped together as an “Axis of Evil” were never a cohesive group, working together to destroy American influence around the world – even if they each, singularly, had every reason to want to reach just that end result. But to bet America’s conduct of its foreign affairs on this all-encompassing, easy-to-say theme ultimately contributed to the delusion that Iraq had those mythic WMDs that in turn led to a decade-long invasion and occupation of that unhappy nation. And that, in turn, made no small contribution to the collapse of world sympathy for America that had initially come in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Over the years, the “Axis of Evil” and similar derivations – as convenient, shorthand for international bad behaviour – were used by a whole range of American foreign policy figures during the Bush years. In time, this formulation was picked up foreign policy figures in allied nations to show sympathy for American views – or to describe some of their own views about the character of international rogue states.

Inevitably, too, the catchall nature of the phrase has led to uses even further afield. The Eritrean president borrowed it to characterize his nation’s iffy relations with its neighbours, Ethiopia, Yemen and Sudan, calling them an “Axis of Belligerence.” Not to be outdone, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, termed the US, UK and Israel a “true axis of evil”, while Hugo Chavez has called the leftist regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua the “Axis of Good.” There seems to be something of a linguistic Gresham’s law at work here. Eventually even The Economist played the game with its alliterative “Axis of Diesel” to describe the aggressive resource nationalism of Russia, Iran and Venezuela.

Eventually, this term – or puns on it – has named rock groups, nicknamed women’s political action groups and even, as “axels of evil”, slated a group of particularly fuel inefficient SUVs. Most recently, the original phrase has even been applied in astronomy to describe the challenge that in measuring the mass of galaxies, while any two sets of the measurements can be made to fit together, that always leaves any estimate made by a third technique significantly out of line with the other two. Called the “Axis of Evil”, to some astronomers it seems as if the Universe itself is being difficult, keeping back one or two pieces of this complex jigsaw puzzle so that scientists are prevented from calibrating their measures properly.
Looking back over the impact of this phrase, some critics such as Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a major Washington think tank, have argued that putting all of the US’ foreign policy eggs in this metaphorical basket back in 2002 stymied any hopes of reconciliation with Iran for a decade. Other critics, even ones generally supportive of Bush’s foreign policy tend to agree. Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow of the Saban Centre at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA analyst who supported the war in Iraq has said, “I think they realise the axis of evil phrase has gotten them into a lot of trouble with a lot of different people. It’s made their diplomacy a lot harder, and it’s reinforced the sentiment that these are a bunch of cowboys who don’t pay a whole lot of attention to nuances.” While James R. Lilley, a former United States ambassador to South Korea who was also a Bush supporter argued that while “the president spoke the truth,” Lilley did not like the focus on the phrase, particularly after Bush added later that he personally loathed North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. Lilley added, “If you want to get something done in North Korea, that’s really not the way to approach it.”

But a larger case can be made that such a phrase fitted perfectly with America’s historical Manichaeism in defining foreign policy: there are the men in white hats who battle against the ones wearing the black hats – good and evil – the children of light arrayed against the children of darkness, of religious philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic depiction. The problem, however, is that the world does not always resolve into just two tones – sometimes there are all those awkward, difficult to parse, shades of grey as well. Alas, George W Bush was never a subtle kind of a guy. DM

For more, read:

  • The Original Axis of Evil (a review by Samantha Power of Robert Paxton’s “The Anatomy of Fascism”) in the New York Times;
  • Why ‘Axis of Evil’ is Still Right (David Frum’s defense of his position, ten years on)
  • U.S. And Iran, A Decade After ‘Axis’ Declaration at National Public Radio;
  • White House Letter; Axis of Evil: First Birthday for a Famous Phrase in the New York Times;
  • Astronomers reveal a cosmic ‘axis of evil’ at

Photo: Reuters


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