Media editorial boards, defense analysts, security pundits and every cubicle-caged IR policy wonk under the crystalline radiance of the United States has been, in the last couple of weeks, hurriedly attempting to unpack the implications of Bush’s charge. As mentioned above, the linkage is not altogether self-evident, which has led many to the conclusion this particular rhetorical gambit may only precipitate further problems. Some examples:
  1. The Economist (notoriously neoliberal but well-informed UK world affairs magazine) which has been very supportive of US policy since last autumn, has shifted its editorial stance drastically since Bush used the term in last month’s State of the Union address – now calling American policy on terrorism, ‘bold but dangerous’ and the US hard line on nuclear proliferation ultimately ‘radically wrong’. (Editorials, Jan. 31 & Feb. 8)
  2. Former US SOS Madeleine Albright broke ranks immediately when she remarked that day after Bush’s speech many of her diplomatic colleagues around the world believe US policy-makers ‘may have gone mad’(New York Times February 3, 2002, “Axis of Debate: Hawkish Words”),while the French Foreign Minister Varine called the approach reductive, simplistic & expressed shock the EU was not being consulted.* Even Tony Blair called upon the presentation of clear evidence linking Iraq with terrorism (Washington Post, February 7, 2002).
  3. The official state news agency in North Korea, after week’s measured contemplation, shot back with the charge that America was an ‘Empire of the devil’ that is simply using terrorism as an excuse to justify a proposed $48 billion U.S. defense spending increase would be the largest in two decades.1 (Reuters, February 8, 2002)
      Nowhere, however, in Bush’s speech, or in the use of the phrase in following briefings with other US officials, was there ever any insinuation of collusion between these nations – the phrase is simple rhetorical shorthand for the three nations which American intelligence has assessed as most potentially threatening at this time. They may not represent material interests (through Iraq/Iran2 do carry that additional element) and may even be moving towards improved relations (Iranian political reform has been making slow but noticeable progress for nearly a decade according to many Western human rights observers) . They certainly will not necessarily, just by extension of rhetoric, be immediate military targets (Somalia, the Philipines & Indonesia will be getting that dubious honour, mainly through the action of proxy forces).4
      Some possible explanations, then, for such a unilateral & non-conciliatory stance: see footnotes.
* In Canada, Parti Quebecois leader Bernard Landry went further, back on November 18, 2001 at a PQ convention, in a speech which drew a direct line from repression to terrorism, and he said any powerful occupying force could only expect to be a target when it denied a minority nation their sovereignty. 9-11, he said, was a clear example (National Post, December 6, 2001, “Dissension within the 4th estate”).! English Canada is well acquainted with Quebecois anti-Americanism; but similar lines of reasoning have emerged from Europe as well, most notably the UK & France. Jean Baudrillard started the ball rolling with his piece, ‘L’esprit du terrorisme’ which appeared prominently in Le Monde, November 2, 2001. Regarding the smoking rubble of Manhattan he writes: ‘the moral condemnation and the sacred union against terrorism are directly proportional to the prodigious jubilation felt at having seen this global superpower destroyed, because it was this insufferable superpower that both gave rise to the violence now spreading throughout the world and to the terrorist imagination that (without our knowing it) dwells within us the end, it was they who did it, but we who wished it.’ Finally, on 01.04.02, Reuters reported the French are apprently enthralled by Thierry Meyssan's new book The Frightening Fraud which 'proves' the destruction at The Pentagon during the terrorist attacks last autumn was staged by the US government. The book is now the top seller on's French site (reported April 1, 2002, Globe and Mail, "French hot on theory Pentagon plane a hoax," A8) - One could venture to say statements like these, and countless others around the world, may be precisely why the US is going unilateral as of late.# That, and I think a genuinely felt concern for what just one suicide bomber with a wayward tach-nuke could do to downtown London, Paris or Washington.

! Actual quote: "The freedom of peoples and nations and their character is an indispensible condition for global equilibrium. Since the events of Sept. 11th, if there is one conclusion to draw in relation to the project of Quebec sovereignty and the sovereignty and liberty of all people, it is that" ('Why the PQ is Doomed', National Post, A18, February 28, 2002). This seems to say: look how 'unfree' these ethnic groups are, who can blame them for mass murder? It's reductionist & revisionist thinking, i.e. vintage PQ.
# On that matter of unilateralism (lest I be accused of Us vs. Them-atics - oh! were that it was so clearly binary as that), I leave you with Samuel Huntington as he surveys a multi-polar world : "It is a dangerous place, in which large numbers of people resent our wealth, power, and culture ... In this world America must learn to distinguish among 1. our true friends who will be with us and we with them through thick and thin; 2. opportunistic allies with whom we have some but not all interests in common; 3. strategic partner-competitors with whom we have a mixed relationship; 4. antagonists who are rivals but with whom negotiation is possible; and 5. unrelenting enemies who will try to destroy us unless we destroy them first." (The Clash of Civilizations, 1991)

1 Ronald Reagan, for better or worse, depending on how you judge his administration, used the same combination of tough, frequently apocalyptic rhetoric along with military spending & confrontation, in dealing with the Soviet Union. President Reagan's Evil Empire Speech and the Star Wars/Strategic Defense Initiative of the early 1980’s typifies the characterization. Of course, this approach really shouldn’t be nearly as shocking as everyone seems to think it is – I mean, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft? That was the Reagan Administation.
2 The Bush and Bin Laden families both have extensive oil investments all across the region: Desert Storm, rightly or wrongly, was the move to protect those interests from Iraqi incursion – at present, ¼ of US oil imports still originates from the Gulf states. But the aftermath of the war is still heavily debated. Briefly – as the Iraqi military withdrew from occupied Kuwait & the Saudi border at the end of the Gulf War, in 1991, the US had a choice – fight a ground war with their own troops in hostile Baghdad & attempt to remove Hussein or leave bases in Saudi Arabia & go for containment. Removal of Hussein would have led to the destabilization of the Iraqi state – Iran would have immediately pressed in to reoccupy eastern territories it lost in the brutal Iran-Iraq War which raged through the 1980’s. The Kurdish nation in the northern regions, which has never recognized Iraqi rule, would have immediately pushed for independence – which would have included mountain regions in Iraq, Jordan & Turkey. In other words, destabilization of the region and possible Balkanization – esp. in Turkey where there are numerous other ethnicities besides the Kurds, namely Armenians, who would go for succession in any shift of regional power.3
      Sooo…, in absence of a strategic architecture for dealing with all those problems (in the early 90s, as you may recall, the US had more pressing domestic unrest at home & in Central America) – Bush felt unprepared for the possibility of such an escalation in Central Asia, and deemed containment was the way to go. One decade later, we witness the grim repercussion of that endgame: containment meant staying in Saudi Arabia, which meant placating another corrupt, undemocratic, oil state, the elites of which, no doubt with damaged pride for having to seek American assistance, turned against the US. Saudi money established dozens of madrasas throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, which specialized in anti-American rhetoric, to inculcate violence against any Western intervention or exchange – be it military, humanitarian, economic or cultural.
3 I use Balkanization in the truly bleak and nasty sense of the word, because the potential for a multi-racial implosion in Northern Iraq – with Arabs, Kurds, Turks and Armenians is a dizzyingly ominous possibility. The 25,000,000 Kurds (the only ethnicity left stateless after WWI) hate the Iraqis for gassing them and the Turks for denying them independence; which holds true for the Armenians too, except they weren’t gassed by Iraqis, but rather by Kurdish militias under the Ottoman Turks. See R.G. Suny’s Looking Towards Ararat : Armenia in Modern History (Indiana University Press, 1993).
4 David Malone of the International Peace Academy, "Too little, too late, Saddam" Globe and Mail, February 8, 2002, A11.
If you find my tone & conclusions ambiguous, you’ve guessed my true feelings on the subject – total and abject uncertainty about what to think, whom to believe and/or what motives to question. The imminent Palestinian state, Caspian Sea oil developments and Syrian-Turkish internal stability explain much more about the various actors’ moves in the region (US, Saudis, Israel, Afghanistan) than religion ever will. Anyone who actually believes it’s a holy war is being played and probably will end up used as cannon fodder – just old nationalisms dressed up in tired religious garb to bring violence to innocents & clout to new regimes. On the flip side however, I find Chomsky, Baudrillard et al. pretty hopelessly simplistic themselves – Jean, in particular, should know better given he lives within sight of the Eiffel Tower, which Algerian terrorists only f*ing tried to fly a plane into in 2000. Needless to say, had the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and 3,000-odd Frenchman been reduced to atomized dust, and some American comedian had piped up that everyone hates the French anyway, Baudrillard probably wouldn’t have been quite so relativistic & blasé - *gah* - anyway, The Custodian's right though, sorry about the footnotes; I'll try to get that under control.
Beaten to it - rightfully - by legbagede. A hearty 'me too' for his excellent writeup above. Although, dude, footnotes within footnotes? Who are you trying to be, here, David Foster Wallace?

I feel compelled to chime in here. I'd like to look at each of the three statements made by stewacide in the above post that concern the named states.

Iraq. Contrary to what is written, Iraq does in fact have a relatively strong military capability - especially compared to Afghanistan. Although not in control of the airspace over a good portion of their state, the Iraqi armed forces retain a large portion of the equipment and formations that they had in The Gulf War. After-action analyses done by Coalition nations (the U.S. most specifically) indicated that the claims of armor destroyed were in fact quite high relative to the verified kills (verified by walking up to them after the ground war had begun). Some large units, including Republican Guard units, were never even engaged by ground forces during the Gulf War because Saddam Hussein chose to hold them north of Baghdad and the Coalition advance. As for potential WMD threats, Richard Butler (ex-head of the U.N. Inspection team) states quite clearly in his writings that in his opinion, the Iraqi weapons development program cannot be considered neutralized without on-site verification. There is considerable debate as to the amount of program infrastructure actually destroyed by U.N. inspection teams, given the draconian limitations placed on their movements inside Iraq.

While the Iraqi military may not be the behemoth (regionally speaking) that it once was, there is no reason to doubt (especially given the resource allocation patterns made obvious by Hussein's government) that there is a solid core of combat-capable units in the Iraqi armed forces, which remain under tight command. Look at it one way: In all the instances of exchanges of anti-aircraft and air-to-ground fire over the no-fly zones, exactly zero Coalition aircraft have been lost. Many Iraqi air-defense crew have been killed. Yet they keep trying; this implies fairly good discipline or lots of fear. Both indicate that Saddam Hussein remains firmly in control of the military arm, and that he has no problem losing (fairly expensive) radars/launchers to U.S. counterstrikes.

Finally, comparing the Ba'ath regime to the Taliban is misleading. The Ba'ath have been in power and consolidating their grip for decades, where the Taliban were relative newcomers. The Iraqi regime has a much more established infrastructure in terms of military and political linkages (the Taliban didn't really even have a formal military; it's just that their opponents were in an even worse state). All this prompts me to disagree with the assessment that Iraq's government could be dealth with using the Afghanistan recipe. One final note: whatever they say about him, Arab nations acknowledge Hussein as the current lawful government of Iraq, as does everyone else, including the United States (we acknowledge he is; we just don't like it). Trying to destabilize and overthrow an established Arabic government is a far cry from smacking down a sectarian government that even other Muslim regimes really wanted nothing to do with and saw primarily as a useful dumping ground for their own domestic malcontents. The reaction from the Arab world would be strong; even while fighting a war against Iraq, the U.S. had to perform delicate coalition management (i.e. compromise) to avoid local nations getting the image of the U.S. destroying a local Arab leader. In this case, even our NATO allies have been making strongly worded arguments as to why Little Bush's speech was a dumb move.

Iran. This case is admittedly murkier; however, I would point out that given the Ayatollahs demonstrated ability to (and habit of) dismissing and/or incarcerating opponents from the secular government, I am hard pressed to see these reforms as progressing in any meaningful sense. I will acknowledge encouraging signs from Iranian citizenry and the secular government; however, I don't believe those were the target of Little Bush's speech.

North Korea. Nations that 'can't even feed their own people' and yet have the ability to manufacture (and, likely, existing stockpiles of) weapons of mass destruction, coupled with long-range missile technology, are far more dangerous than nations which have weapons and missiles and can feed their people. Eventually, the government may decide that the people are a present danger to them. At this point, the phrase 'Nothing to Lose' becomes frightfully applicable.

Turn the question around. What if the North Korean government, which we all acknowledge does an unfortunately good job of informational control within its borders, simply announced to the West that their situation was untenable? They might demand that the West provide them with vast quantities of aid, or else they would feel no qualms about firing several of said missiles against the Japanese islands. While it's easy to say 'what could they do?' remember that the option on the other side of the coin is for either the U.S. to actually conventionally strike North Korea or for the U.S. to take the brinkmanship position of priming its own missiles in response. If the North Korean government feels that they have perhaps seven days before a starving mob drags them from their palaces and shoots them in the street, how do you deter them?

I don't mean to imply that I support Mr. Bush. On the contrary, I think the speech was probably the most damaging bit of rhetoric to American foreign relations since great-granddaddy Reagan's 'We begin bombing in five minutes' gaffe. I don't believe there is an alliance between these states; far from it. I don't think he should have identified them by nation. However, I would be forced to agree that the current situations and regimes extant in those three countries do represent much of the probable direct threat to United States security (I won't claim the West's, or the world's) in the next couple of years.


To stewacide: Fair point ref. Iraq. I think I should be clear about what context I'm referring to when I speak of the 'strength' of the current regime. I don't have much to say on the current state of mind of the Iraqi populace; I also don't know to what degree units are being equipped and trained. Against a determined external assault by the U.S. et. el, this is a whole different story. However, given a) firm control of the military, b) lack of a credible organized armed resistance (the Kurds just don't count, for me, as a national resistance or an 'army') for the U.S. to proxy-fight through, and c) evident ample supply and presence on the part of the military (if not all of it, enough) I'd say that Iraq's regime is fairly safe. They've shown no hesitation to use any means available to subdue rebelious areas, and are still there.

Iran - I'm intentionally staying mum; I don't have good info on internal Iranian politics and views. I will just say, however, that we have not yet seen an issue where the secular government even took a successful stand against the religious orders; but several instances of unsuccessful ones.

Apparently Bush's "Axis of Evil" was coined by former Bush speech writer David Frum. Frum is the ultra right wing son of a late CBC news anchor and somewhat left-leaning Barbara Frum. Shortly after Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech, Frum's wife Danielle Crittenden started emailing friends and associates claming her husband coined the term. Below is her email which someone eventually forwarded to the press:
Dear all,

I realize this is very "Washington" of me to mention but my husband is responsible for the "Axis of Evil" segment of Tuesday's State of the Union address. It's not often a phrase one writes gains national notice -- unless you're in advertising of course ("The Pause that refreshes") --so I'll hope you'll indulge my wifely pride in seeing this one repeated in headlines everywhere!!

Frum basked somewhat temporarily in the glory generated by his wife's email but then he promptly quit his cush job at the White House. This lead many to speculate that the President was less than pleased that the only interesting thing he ever said in his presidency, the only thing he ever said that no reporter then ran to Clinton for clarification, was being scooped by a porky little Canadian.

Frum and the White House denied his departure had anything to do with his wife's cattiness. Frum, however, tried to lob some credit back to the President, claiming he originally wrote "axis of hate" which Bush changed to "axis of evil".

Frum quickly dashed off a tell-all book The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency Of George W. Bush in which he claims no one in the Bush White House could be described as having a "high-powered brain".

What a lot of people failed to realize about the term "axis of evil" when it was first used in the 2002 State of the Union address, was that the point wasn't that Iran, North Korea and Iraq were in some sort of alliance. The "axis of evil" was the connection between states with weapons of mass destruction and non-state terrorist groups like Hizbollah or al-Qaeda, not connections between these particular states. And that is why even though the U.S. has long abandoned this term, it continues to be used in the Israeli media because they face the threat of Iranian and Syrian-backed terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hizbollah.

The term is of course long gone in Europe and America because it is associated with the failings of the Bush administration - it never got that much airplay, anyway. Later in 2002 John Bolton (then undersecretary of state for arms control) gave a speech entitled "Beyond the Axis of Evil" which added Syria, Cuba and Libya to the list - the inclusion of Cuba, especially, only muddying the water. But if we get behind the language and look at the actual issues, we find they are still very much alive.

The concern over weapons of mass destruction and terrorism is going to be a structural one in global politics now, for ever. It's fading at the moment because it has been a while since a major terrorist incident and there are other more pressing worries, but the first instance of WMD use by a non-state terror organization is going to lead to a paradigm shift as severe as the one which followed 9/11. The responsible group will be taken apart insofar as it can be and the state which originally manufacutred the weapons used is going to have some explaining to do; the severe consequences for all involved are likely to preclude Syria or Iran actually making this happen on purpose.

The Israeli use of "axis of evil" points to a problem that is at least much more immediate. The Hizbollah number two who just got killed, Imad Mugniyah, personified the "axis of evil" as Israelis understand it - an international terrorist who spent his time between Damascus, Tehran and Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut, working tirelessly against Israeli and U.S. interests.

This axis is, interestingly, almost entirely a Shi'ite affair (with the exception of Hamas) and is part of a concerted effort by Iran and Syria's minority Shi'ite Alawite government to spearhead a kind of Shi'ite revival in the Islamic world. The Sunni states have failed to destroy Israel - Egypt has even become its closest Arab ally - and their relationship to the main Sunni terror organization, al-Qaeda, is complicated by the fact al-Qaeda hates the Sunni states almost as much as it hates the west. Only in the Syria/Iran-Hizbollah/Hamas axis is there a clear, structured connection between states and terror groups working for the same aims. The attendence by high officials of the Iranian government at Mugniyah's funeral is only the most obvious indication of this.

As far as Iran, Syria and its clients are concerned, the Sunni states and al-Qaeda might talk a big game, but they've actually done very little to attack Israel. Hizbollah are the guys who inflicted what basically amounted to a defeat on the Israeli military in 2006, and Hamas are the ones who have radically changed the dynamic of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is why it's so hard for Israel to dismiss the rhetoric of Iran's President Ahmadinejad about destroying Israel as mere bluster, like much of the world does: he already does quite a lot towards this end through his support of the main groups seeking this destruction. And these groups are fresh from a string of victories and feeling cocksure.

Iranian support for anti-state elements in Iraq is another extension of this phenomenon. The horrible irony of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is that, even though it eliminated the possibility of Saddam Hussein again manufacturing WMD and then giving them to a non-state terror group, it did the Iranians the biggest favour they've been done in a long time by allowing them to extend their influence into Iraq. The Mehdi Army and the Badr Organization - Shi'ite parties and militias - are likely to be decisive in determining Iraq's future, and are already receiving Iranian money and weapons towards this end.

Because the most immediately worrying link of states and terrorists is this one between Iran and its client groups - regardless of a possible WMD link, which as I've said is unlikely - the U.S. invasion of Iraq really made conditions better for what the Israelis still call the "axis of evil" rather than being a step towards tackling it. Already Hizbollah, Hamas, and Iranian clients in Iraq would be a formidable force if they turned their guns concertedly against the U.S. and Israel and used their global influence towards this end. Hezbollah's chief Hassan Nasrallah threatened to do just that minutes before I wrote this, saying to Israel after the assassination of Mugniyah: "You have crossed the borders. With this murder, its timing, location and method — Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, let the whole world listen: Let this war be open."

And it will be. These are not the words of a man or head of an organization who is scared. Iran's clients are on the rise and its influence in the region is growing. The Shi'ite revival led by Iran is here and its feet and hands are already bloody from those it stepped on to get to the top. This war, for Israel, the Lebanese, and the rest of us, is going to get a lot more open and a lot worse before it gets any better. Worst of all, the toppling of Saddam Hussein just opened up a new theatre of operations for Iran's influence. If you thought you'd seen an axis of evil, you ain't seen nothing yet.

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