America’s axis-tential crisis

President Bush's 'axis of evil' tells us far more about the USA than about Iraq, Iran or North Korea.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

‘Rarely can one phrase have caused such confusion and controversy’, wrote BBC journalist Jon Leyne in early February, after US senators started asking awkward questions about President Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech (1). ‘I was confused by it…I’m not exactly sure what he means…I don’t know what the president had in mind’, blurted Democratic senator Joe Biden (2). According to Leyne, Bush’s evil axis seems to ‘have frightened America’s allies as much as it scared its enemies’ (3).

It’s not only journalists and Democrats who were confused by Bush’s rhetoric. Since calling Iraq, Iran and North Korea an ‘axis of evil’ in his State of the Union address on 30 January 2002, Dubya himself and his secretaries of state seem unclear about where to go next. ‘It is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight’, said Bush in his address (4), threatening to bring the ‘war on terror’ to other evil states – but two days later he told journalists that if the three evil states ‘showed a clear commitment to peace’, ‘we would be more than happy to enter into dialogue with them’ (5).

On 5 February, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said ‘These are very dangerous regimes…. Action is going to be required.’ (6) But on the same day secretary of state Colin Powell said, ‘It does not mean that we are ready to invade anyone or we are not willing to engage in dialogue. Quite the contrary.’ (7) So was Bush’s speech a call for war or a call for peace? Deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz says it was neither, but more an attempt to open up ‘discussion’: ‘[Bush] put the whole world on notice. And he’s really, in effect, invited a dialogue about how you deal with it.’ (8)

The Bush administration seems uncertain about whether to bomb or be friendly to the evil states. ‘North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens’, said Bush in his address (9). But when asked if he had a message for North Korean leader Kim Jong II on his sixtieth birthday on 17 February, Colin Powell opted for the therapeutic touch over war talk: ‘The South Koreans want to reach out and help you in your time of trouble, and America has said clearly that we want to speak with North Korea at any time or place, without preconditions.’ (10)

‘Iran aggressively pursues weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom’, said Bush as he labelled Iran an ‘evil entity’ on 30 January (11). But days later, a spokesman made clear that diplomatic channels with Iran were still up and running: ‘We have not isolated Iran totally. We are in touch with them.’ (12)

Then the US government started to play down just how evil the evil states were. On 18 February, the International Herald Tribune noted that ‘USA softens tone on two of the “axis” nations’, as the Bush administration made clear that one of the evil states (Iraq, of course) was ‘more evil’ than the other two. The Tribune noted that Bush’s advisers and secretaries had ‘continued to refine’ his ‘axis of evil’ comments, because they didn’t want anybody to think that ‘action is imminent against any of the three countries’. It didn’t take US website SatireWire long to joke that, ‘Bitter after being snubbed for membership in the “Axis of Evil”, Libya, China and Syria today announced they had formed the “Axis of Just as Evil”…’ (13).

‘The president’s [axis of evil] remarks caused a certain amount of handwringing’, admitted vice-president Dick Cheney on 18 February, ‘but most Americans find it reassuring to have a commander in chief who means exactly what he says’ (14). If ‘most Americans’ understand exactly what Bush means and says, maybe they should tell his administration.

Bush’s post-axis troubles didn’t end there. Some of his own Republican senators broke rank with the post-11 September consensus on the ‘war against terror’, by raising what one journalist called ‘very rare’ criticisms of US foreign policy. ‘I was a little bit concerned at the somewhat cavalier attitude that I have heard from this administration’, ventured Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel, as he accused Bush of using ‘very dangerous words’ (15).

Meanwhile, commentators pointed out that while Bush was busy slating Iraq, Iran and North Korea, there was still the unsolved mystery of Osama bin Laden and co. ‘Focus on al-Qaeda, not “axis of evil”’, wrote one journalist (16). ‘A month ago, I knew exactly why we were fighting’, said Chris Matthews in the New York Daily News. ‘We were getting the killers of 11 September…. Who hijacked that clear-eyed, all-American front and left our leaders mouthing this “axis of evil” line?’ (17) ‘We seem to have lost our way’, Matthews concluded.

To top it all, David Frum, the White House spindoctor who invented the ‘axis of evil’ phrase, was forced to resign at the end of February, after his wife sent an email to friends and family boasting of her ‘wifely pride’ at seeing her husband’s phrase ‘repeated in headlines everywhere!’ (18). Those three now infamous words seem to have brought Bush a lot of trouble.

Commentators and politicians claim that focusing on the ‘axis of evil’ is a diversion from catching bin Laden and sorting out unfinished business in Afghanistan – but it actually tells us much about the USA’s ‘war on terror’. Just as the conduct of the war in Afghanistan has little to do with political realities in Afghanistan and much to do with the US administration’s own political agenda, so the ‘axis of evil’ tells us nothing about realities in Iraq, Iran or North Korea and much about Bush’s attempt to find a new focus for displaying American power.

Take North Korea. In his State of the Union address, Bush denounced the communist state for ‘starving its citizens’ and developing ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (19). But when he was told by South Korean president Kim Dae Jung on 20 February that the ‘axis of evil’ comments had damaged relations between South and North Korea, Bush was conciliatory. ‘Let me explain why I made the comments I did…. I worry about a regime that is closed and not transparent. I’m deeply concerned about the people of North Korea’, he said, before calling on North Korean leader Kim Jong II to ‘prove to the world that he has a good heart’ (20).

North Korea is incapable of posing a threat to ‘world peace’ or world anything. It is an isolated, poverty-stricken nation, where the infant mortality rate is 24 deaths per 1000 live births and where life expectancy is in the mid-60s (21). As the CIA says, ‘North [Korea] relies heavily on international food aid to feed its population’, is politically ‘isolated’, and desires to ‘communicate’ with Western nations (22).

The Clinton administration reciprocated this desire to ‘communicate with the West’ in June 2000 when it lifted America’s 50-year-old economic sanctions against North Korea, in recognition of ‘an historic summit between the leaders of North and South Korea’ (23). According to one journalist, ‘the relaxation of sanctions [was] consistent with America’s policy of encouraging North Korea out of its isolation’ (24) – but now North Korea has been plunged back into its isolation by Bush’s unreal rhetoric.

Bush may have toned down his ‘axis of evil’ comments while visiting South Korea in mid-February – but by then the damage was done. As Bush was leaving, he called on South Korea and Japan to reopen negotiations with North Korea (taken as evidence by one journalist that ‘the US administration is less antagonistic toward North Korea than the president’s words suggest’ (25)) – but that was easier said than done. According to South Korean political analysts, ‘Bush’s comments, in which he castigated the North Korean leader and repeated his judgement that the regime is “evil”, have further distanced prospects of renewed cooperation by [the North Korean government]’ (26). Bush can’t have it both ways – he can’t have both his evil-laden war talk and also peaceful chats.

Then there’s Iran, which has been one of America’s ‘rogue states’ since the Islamic revolution there in 1979, when the US-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi was ousted. Currently, Iran is split between hardline unelected clerics who want nothing to do with the West, and elected leaders and reformers under President Mohammad Khatami who have been approaching the West in a desperate attempt to improve relations. One commentator expressed his shock at Iran’s inclusion in the axis of evil, because ‘Iran has been undergoing a process of reform encouraged by diplomatic engagement and trade with European states – and to a lesser extent with the USA’ (27). Another asked, why is ‘the USA slamming the door in Iran’s pleading face?’ (28).

In 1997, Iran’s reformers signed the US-backed Chemical Weapons Convention to indicate that it is ‘not interested in such warfare, either within the Middle East or anywhere else’. And at the end of 2001, Iran won plaudits from European politicians for ‘playing an important role behind the scenes in helping to cement the Bonn agreement on the Afghan interim government’ (29). Like North Korea’s leaders, Iran’s reformist politicians seem more interested in making amends with the West than with ‘threatening American interests’.

But Bush’s bellicose rhetoric has hampered Iran’s hopes for improved relations with Western nations. It has made things more difficult for the reformers, boosting the hardliners and causing division and disturbances in the capital Tehran. As The Economist pointed out, ‘The immediate impact of the [axis of evil] speech inside Iran seems to have been to unite opinion from across the political spectrum behind a public position of fierce anti-Americanism’ (30). One report claims that ‘Bush’s new posture towards Iran appears to be energising hardliners and bolstering anti-American sentiment to the highest level in at least a decade’ (31).

At the twenty-third anniversary celebrations of Iran’s Islamic revolution on 12 February 2002, one woman told a US reporter: ‘I didn’t hate Bush before, but now I really hate him. He’s damaging everything. He has hurt the reformers, and is bringing all the hardliners together.’ Yet still the US government claims, ‘We have not isolated Iran totally. We are in touch with them’ (32). Nothing better captures the huge gap between Bush’s rhetoric and reality than his simultaneous pushing away of Iran while still ‘keeping in touch’.

What about Iraq – the most ‘evil’ of the evil states, which Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair are reportedly planning to attack later this year? Even here, in America’s favourite bogeyland, there is nothing to indicate Bush’s claims of a ‘threat to the USA’.

All Bush could fall back on was the oft-repeated accusation that Iraq is building ‘weapons of mass destruction’. But between 1992 and 2000, during more than 2400 inspections in Iraq, UNSCOM (the United Nations Special Mission to Iraq charged with locating ‘weapons of mass destructions’) failed to locate a single prohibited weapon. Asked what he thought Iraq’s arsenal consisted of in March 1998, Charles Duelfer, deputy chairman of UNSCOM, said: ‘That’s a good question…. We have enormous uncertainty.’ (33)

Indeed, on 31 January 2002, the day after Bush’s axis of evil speech, the UN nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iraq had ‘cooperated fully’ with the routine annual inspection of its factories, political buildings and other potential weapons holds that have been carried out each year since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. ‘During our inspection, representatives from the Iraqi Atomic Agency commission were present for the whole time and all help that is necessary to perform the inspections was provided by the Iraqi authorities’, said Anrzey Pietruzewski, head of the IAEA team (34). As usual, the weapons inspectors found nothing suspicious – but why should Bush let reality get in the way of his rhetoric?

According to the CIA itself, Iraq poses no threat to the West. The New York Times reported in February that, ‘The Central Intelligence Agency has no evidence that Iraq has engaged in terrorist operations against the United States in nearly a decade, and the spy agency also is convinced that Saddam Hussein has not provided chemical or biological weapons to al-Qaeda or related terrorist groups’ (35). It would be particularly difficult for Iraq to pose a threat to the West – considering that the Gulf War, in the boastful words of one US politician, ‘bombed it back to the stone age’, only to be followed by stringent economic sanctions which have left Iraq poverty-stricken.

Turkish prime minister Bulnet Ecevit says that Iraq is keen to kickstart peaceful negotiations about its weapons and foreign policy with Western leaders. ‘Words that could be understood as meaning Iraq is ready to find a compromise were said’, claimed Ecevit, after meeting with Saddam Hussein (36). And in early February, just days after Bush’s axis of evil speech, Iraq announced that it was ready to have ‘unconditional talks’ with the United Nations – ‘part of a concerted effort by Baghdad to improve its world standing’, as one report put it. According to a Washington Post journalist, ‘Anti-Iraq rhetoric outpaces reality’ (37).

Listening to US politicians and some British politicians demanding an attack on ‘evil Iraq’, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is about sorting out the unfinished business of the Gulf War – when some of those who are now serving in the Bush administration (and Bush’s father) failed to oust Saddam in 1991. On 11 Feburary, former UK prime minister and now Baroness Margaret Thatcher praised Bush’s axis of evil approach to international affairs, describing Saddam as ‘the most notorious rogue’ and calling on Bush and co to ‘finish off business in Iraq’ (38). Maybe it’s a bit irrational to see the US/Iraq clash as a clash of personalities and past differences – but it’s no more irrational than America’s claims that Iraq is building massive weapons with which it plans to threaten the West, for which there isn’t a shred of evidence.

The ‘axis of evil’ states seem to have only two things in common – none of them poses a threat to America or Europe, and all of them, to differing degrees, seem keen to overcome their isolation. So why have they been labelled ‘evil’, and turned into the post-Afghanistan focus of the USA’s ‘war on terror’? It has little to do with what is happening within the states themselves, and much to do with the USA’s need to do something, anything, to forward its domestically oriented political agenda.

As spiked editor Mick Hume commented in November 2001: ‘The Bush administration took America off to Afghanistan in search, not just of bin Laden, but of itself. It hoped to find a new sense of purpose and mission for both the government and the nation…. In effect Bush was seeking to export America’s internal malaise on to Afghan soil.’ (39) Now, the Bush administration is trying to externalise its problems further outwards, by picking three states to mouth off about. But, as it is discovering, it is easy to indulge in war talk and to puff out your chest, but not so easy to deal with the consequences.

Meanwhile, bin Laden still hasn’t been found – which was the ostensible aim of the war on terror. On 4 February the US authorities boasted about killing an ‘al-Qaeda target’ who was ‘over six feet tall and wearing Arab clothing’ (40). But, as the Washington Post pointed out a week later, ‘Mir Ahmad was a little tall. But he was not Osama bin Laden. Villagers…said Ahmad and two other local men were peasants gathering scrap metal from the war [when] they were killed [by] a US Hellfire missile.’ (41) US forces are so low on intelligence that they can’t seem to tell one ‘towel-head’ from another. As some Afghans recently told a US journalist, ‘the Americans do not really know who they are aiming at’ (42).

And despite telling the world that they had ‘hardcore terrorist frontmen’ at Camp X-Ray in Cuba, the US authorities now admit that they have no al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders, only their followers, and that none of them seems suitable for a military tribunal. ‘There’s…not a sense that we’ve got a person or two people that we feel are really likely candidates’, said defence spokeswoman Victoria Clarke at the end of February (43) – her way of saying that America still hasn’t got its hands on bin Laden, Muhammad Omar or any of the others it has been hunting since October 2001.

At the same time as the US army has been caught unawares by al-Qaeda and Taliban forces holed up in east Afghanistan, who shot down a US helicopter on 4 March 2002 and caused US soldiers, in the words of one Afghan leader, to ‘retreat really badly’ (44), the US military is being sucked further into bloody civil conflicts between tribal leaders within Afghanistan. On 18 February, the US army bombed ‘enemy troops’ who had attacked forces loyal to Kabul’s interim government. As the New York Times pointed out: ‘The strikes appeared to differ from previous American bombing raids in Afghanistan because, according to warlords in the region, they were aimed at controlling clashes among militia forces, and not at destroying the Taliban or al-Qaeda.’ (45)

The US army is also intervening in the Philippines, Somalia and Georgia in search of more ‘evil terrorists’, while states from Israel and India to Pakistan and Indonesia are piggybacking the ‘war on terror’ to attack longstanding enemies and to settle old scores, causing bloodshed in the Middle East and South Asia (46). Is this what Bush meant in his axis of evil speech, when he said he would ‘lead the world towards the values that will bring lasting peace’?

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: After 11 September

How did we get from Manhattan to Kabul?, by Mick Hume

When is a war not a war?, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Analysis: The ‘axis of evil’ debate, BBC News, 6 February 2002

(2) Analysis: The ‘axis of evil’ debate, BBC News, 6 February 2002

(3) Analysis: The ‘axis of evil’ debate, BBC News, 6 February 2002

(4) Full text: State of the Union address, BBC News, 30 January 2002

(5) Bush seeks dialogue with ‘evil’ states, BBC News, 1 February 2002

(6) Republican senators find fault with US diplomacy, Reuters, 5 February 2002

(7) Republican senators find fault with US diplomacy, Reuters, 5 February 2002

(8) US softens tone on two ‘axis’ nations, International Herald Tribune, 18 February 2002

(9) Full text: State of the Union address, BBC News, 30 January 2002

(10) US softens tone on two ‘axis’ nations, International Herald Tribune, 18 February 2002

(11) Full text: State of the Union address, BBC News, 30 January 2002

(12) US softens tone on two ‘axis’ nations, International Herald Tribune, 18 February 2002

(13) Angered by snubbing, Libya, China, Syria form Axis of Just as Evil, SatireWire, February 2002

(14) Cheney defends ‘axis of evil’ label, Associated Press, 18 February 2002

(15) Republican senators find fault with US diplomacy, Reuters, 5 February 2002

(16) Focus on al-Qaeda, not ‘axis of evil’, San Diego Union-Tribune, 27 February 2002

(17) The right has put W on the wrong warpath, Chris Matthews, New York Daily News, 14 February 2002

(18) Proud wife turns ‘axis of evil’ speech into a resignation letter , Guardian, 27 February 2002

(19) Full text: State of the Union address, BBC News, 30 January 2002

(20) North Korea safe from US attack, Bush says in Seoul, New York Times, 20 February 2002

(21) See The World Factbook 2001, CIA

(22) See The World Factbook 2001, CIA

(23) US lifts sanctions on North Korea, BBC News, 19 June 2000

(24) US lifts sanctions on North Korea, BBC News, 19 June 2000

(25) Cleaning up in Bush’s wake, Washington Post, 26 February 2002

(26) Cleaning up in Bush’s wake, Washington Post, 26 February 2002

(27) Analysis: Iran and the ‘axis of evil’, BBC News, 11 February 2002

(28) Analysis: Iran and the ‘axis of evil’, BBC News, 11 February 2002

(29) Analysis: Iran and the ‘axis of evil’, BBC News, 11 February 2002

(30) Alienating Iran, The Economist, 11 February 2002

(31) In Iran, ‘Death to America’ is back, Christian Science Monitor, 12 February 2002

(32) US softens tone on two ‘axis’ nations, International Herald Tribune, 18 February 2002

(33) Impact, CNN, 4 March 1998

(34) Iraq cooperated with nuclear inspection – IAEA, Reuters, 31 January 2002

(35) Iraqi terror hasn’t hit US in years, CIA says, New York Times, 6 February 2002

(36) Turk PM says Iraq may be ready to compromise, Reuters, 12 February 2002

(37) Anti-Iraq rhetoric outpaces reality, Washington Post, 24 February 2002

(38) Thatcher urges Bush to ‘finish business of Iraq’, Daily Telegraph, 12 February 2002

(39) How did we get from Manhattan to Kabul?, by Mick Hume

(40) Al-Qaeda target over six feet and wearing Arab clothing , Washington Times, 20 February 2002

(41) Likeness to bin Laden may have doomed poor Afghan, Washington Post, 11 February 2002

(42) Likeness to bin Laden may have doomed poor Afghan, Washington Post, 11 February 2002

(43) US fails to find evidence at Camp X-Ray, Guardian, 27 February 2002

(44) Large US force battles al-Qaeda fighters, Washington Post, 4 March 2002

(45) In a shift, US uses airstrikes to help Kabul, New York Times, 19 February 2002

(46) See Peace process gone wrong?, by Brendan O’Neill; and Why South Asian won’t be ‘calmed’, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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