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The Nation

'Axis of Evil' Rhetoric Said to Heighten Dangers

Many foreign policy observers think Bush's phrasing, although effective on the home front, caused serious damage abroad.

January 21, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- It was a catchy phrase. Perhaps too catchy.

A year after President Bush used the State of the Union address to declare Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "axis of evil," the phrase has taken on a life of its own. With this year's address scheduled for Jan. 28 and the U.S. on the cusp of war with Iraq, the legacy of the "axis of evil" weighs heavily on the speechwriters and policy-makers hard at work on Bush's speech.

Even critics agree that the "axis of evil" was a clever piece of rhetoric in explaining the president's policies to the American people. But as foreign policy, there is wide consensus that it exacerbated the dangers it attempted to contain.

"It was a speechwriter's dream and a policy-maker's nightmare," said Warren Christopher, secretary of State under President Clinton.

The phrase caused immediate controversy. A year later, many experts say it's clear it also has caused real damage.

"It was harmful both conceptually and operationally," said Graham Allison, government professor and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "Conceptually, the 'axis' suggested a relationship among the entities that doesn't exist. More important, operationally, the reaction of the world and the North Korea debacle demonstrates that it was a mistake."

The "axis of evil" language upped the rhetorical ante significantly. Some believe it played a role in undermining Iran's moderate leaders and squelching the country's nascent democracy movement. Many believe it helped provoke North Korea into nuclear confrontation.

The man who half-coined the phrase was speechwriter David Frum, who left the White House a few months after Bush used it. In a recent book, Frum said his assignment for the State of the Union last year was to extrapolate from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to make a case for "going after Iraq."

For inspiration, he thought back to Pearl Harbor and pulled a copy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "date which will live in infamy" speech off the shelf. And he found what he was looking for.

"No country on Earth more closely resembled one of the old Axis powers than present-day Iraq," Frum wrote. "And just as FDR saw in Pearl Harbor a premonition of even more terrible attacks from Nazi Germany, so Sept. 11 had delivered an urgent warning of what Saddam Hussein could and almost certainly would do with nuclear and biological weapons."

One Country No 'Axis'

The argument was emotional and powerful. As Frum put it, and Bush eventually said it, the lesson they took from Sept. 11 was that "the United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

But Hussein's Iraq wasn't an "axis," which in the popular mind consists of three aligned powers. To fill it in, Frum added two other troublesome nuclear wannabes -- Iran and North Korea. Frum acknowledged there was no formal alliance among the three, as there had been among Germany, Japan and Italy during World War II, but argued there were still important similarities.

"The Axis powers disliked and distrusted one another," Frum wrote. "They shared only one thing: resentment of the power of the West and contempt for democracy."

So the phrase he came up with was "axis of hatred." He said his boss, chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, changed it to "axis of evil" to match the theological language Bush had adopted after the terrorist attacks.

The phrase struck a chord -- first with Bush, who liked it and made it his own, and with the president's supporters and advisors.

"The president was pointing to common characteristics between some states, and these are brutally repressive regimes that care nothing about the aspirations or even the well-being of their people," national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said.

But for many others, the analogy was a stretch. No matter how much of a menace Iraq might pose, critics say it was careless and simplistic to lump it together with Iran and North Korea, countries with which it had next to nothing in common.

The leadership is secular in Iraq and religious in Iran, and the two countries -- far from being allies -- are sworn enemies. As Iran's leaders appeared to moderate their anti-American stance in recent years and a democracy movement appeared, Iraq grew more repressive and belligerent. North Korea, meanwhile, remains locked in the grip of an anachronistic communist dictatorship and, far from colluding with other nations, may instead be the most isolated country in the world.

Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, said it was obvious for a long time before the speech that the Bush administration was focusing on the dangers posed by "rogue nations" to a degree many experts and allies considered excessive.

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