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.
The administration’s discredited claims about Iraqi weapons have also served Iran and North Korea by casting Bush as the Boy Who Cried WMD. Though there has never been much doubt about their nuclear ambitions, propagandists and apologists for those regimes have found it all too easy to call the administration’s credibility on the subject into question and to create a shadow of doubt. Meanwhile, Bush’s unilateralism and the bad taste left in everyone’s mouth by the rush to war in Iraq fractured an international community that might otherwise be much more unified in its response.
Bush’s policies have strengthened Iran and North Korea in more specific ways, too. After deposing the Taliban, an unfriendly Sunni power to Iran’s east, we knocked off Saddam, Iran’s enemy to the west. This gave the mullahs an irresistible opportunity to aim for regional hegemony by fostering the development of greater Shiiteastan, stretching from the Hazar region of Afghanistan to Basra in Iraq to southern Lebanon via the Syrian land bridge. Occupying Iraq also presented Iran with a ripe American target and an easy opportunity for retaliation in case of nuclear pre-emption. Today, Iranian-sponsored proxies are targeting American troops with murderous IEDs that can penetrate all of our armed vehicles, including an M-1 tank. In effect, Bush has created a new group of Iranian hostages.
The same might be said of our 30,000 troops in Korea. Bill Clinton’s policy of bribing Kim to not proliferate wasn’t pretty, and it helped prop up his bankrupt regime (in a different way than sanctions do). But Clinton’s emphasis on negotiation also postponed the day when Dear Leader could menace his neighbors with an atomic bomb. Iran and North Korea have also shored up their positions by taunting us in concert, since we’re even less able to go after both simultaneously than either one in isolation.
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.