Thursday, June 01, 2006

Three Words that Shook the World


The title above, of course, has been adapted from the title of John Reed's classic, "Ten Days that Shook the World." No, the three words weren't the famous three little words ("I love you") in the 1930 song titled "Three Little Words," with lyrics by Bert Kalmar and music by Harry Ruby.

Far from it, they were three inflammatory words uttered by President George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address. In this epochal speech he identified Iraq, Iran and North Korea as constituting an "axis of evil." The United States "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," he added.

The genesis of the "axis of evil" expression is recounted in speech writer David Frum's book, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush. It turns out that the phrase grew by accretion. In late December of 2001, chief Bush speech writer Michael Gerson was doling out sections of the forthcoming State of the Union address to White House writers. Frum's assignment: "Can you sum up in a sentence or two our best case for going after Iraq?" Frum rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Pulling books off the shelves, he found what he wanted in the "Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis" of World War II.

"No country on Earth more closely resembled one of the old axis powers than present-day Iraq," Frum writes. But National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Stephen J. Hadley, her deputy, insisted that he expand it. "They wanted to take on Iran as well," Frum says, so that nation was added to create an "axis of hatred." A third country, North Korea, which was attempting to develop a a nuclear weapon and had a history of harsh oppression, was added to the list. It was also tacked on because it "needed to feel a strong hand" and to avoid amplifying the suspicion in Muslim countries that the President's "war on terror" was really a war on Islam.

Frum completed his portion of the speech and passed it to his boss. When he next saw a draft of the entire speech, to his surprise, his words were incorporated almost verbatim. "Gerson wanted to use the theological language that President Bush has made his own since September 11th," he writes, "so 'axis of hatred' became 'axis of evil.'"

The glaring flaw in this phrase is that the three nations did not have a formal alliance such as existed between Germany, Italy and Japan during World War II. By lumping them together, the speech obscured the reality that each of the three nations presented special characteristics. In Iraq the regime was secular; in Iran it was fiercely religious. Far from being allies, the two countries were sworn enemies who had fought a bloody mutually destructive war to a standstill between September 1980 and August 1988. (The United States had openly supported Saddam Hussein in that contest.) And, instead of linking itself with other nations, North Korea, an anachronistic Communist dictatorship, was perhaps the most unaligned and isolated country in the world.

President Bush read the draft of the speech and liked what he saw, making a few changes here and there. The day after the delivery of the State of the Union address, the controversial phrase "axis of evil" became the focus of comment. Experts acknowledged that it was a clever piece of speech writing but--as foreign policy--it was incendiary and actually fanned the very fires it was intended to control.

"It was a speech writer's dream and a policy-maker's nightmare," maintained Warren Christopher, Bill Clinton's Secretary of State. Tarring three countries with the same brush "makes it more difficult to deal with them on a different basis," he added. A hodt of academics also weighed in.

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

Assessing the speech, Dr. Richard K. Betts, director of Columbia University's Institute of War and Peace Studies, noted that the Administration's attention had long been focused on threats by "rogue nations," instead of the danger posed by al-Quaida. The speech "lumped together three countries that the people in the Administration were already thinking about in the same way," Betts said. "Everyone knew before that this was the way they thought but [the speech] did it in a pithy way that made it hard to ignore."

Then there was the use of the word "evil," According to Dr. Joseph Montville, director of the Preventive Diplomacy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, "It's too heavy and radioactive a word. You can't make a deal with evil. You can only kill it." In short, its message to the world was that the United States simply was not interested in negotiating.

Nor did the President improve relations with North Korea with his now-famous intemperate remark to Bob Woodward, "I loathe Kim Jong II." And his ill-considered description of North Korea's ruler as a "pygmy" only poured gasoline on the fire. (Kim Jong II is only an inch taller than five feet.)

Tough talk may play well in Texas, but Dr. Dae-Sook Suh, an expert on Korea and professor of policy studies at the University of Hawaii, criticized Bush for "using this cowboy language in diplomatic circles," noting that in Asia such speech is considered rude, threatening and unseemly.

Domestically, the "axis of evil" speech laid the groundwork for the attack on Iraq the following year. Many believe it also helped to undermine Iran's moderate President Khatami and quashed its burgeoning democracy. A year after the speech, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. To some, the speech only accelerated the nuclear confrontations we are now facing with that country and North Korea.

Despite the obvious damage that had been done by the phrase "axis of evil," it did not immediately disappear from the Bush administration's vocabulary. In a speech on May 6, 2002, titled "Beyond the Axis of Evil," John R. Bolton, U.S. Undersecretary of State, added three more nations to the list of rogue states: Libya, Syria and Cuba. By the summer of 2002, the phrase had quietly dropped from the lexicon of White House officials.

As recently as January 2005, at the start of re-elected President Bush's second term, incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came up with a new phrase, "Outposts of Tyranny," to describe six countries the United States deemed dangerous and anti-American. These were Iran and North Korea from the original axis of evil, plus Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Myanamar (formerly Burma).

Politicians have yet to learn that there can be no winner in an empty war of words. Yet it is frightening to think that this nation may be swaggering toward Armageddon because of some speech writer's casual turn of phrase.

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