Why the term ‘axis of evil’ is now etched in the political lexicon
George W Bush may have left the American presidency in 2009, but one of his many legacies gained traction just a year into his first term.
When the 43rd president of the United States stood at the podium to deliver his State of the Union address 15 years ago last month, his utterance of three simple words led to a global political meltdown that put an already restless world on edge.
In singling out Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil” Mr Bush, speaking just four months after the US succumbed to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, made a bold declaration that put America on a war footing. October 2001 had already witnessed a determined US begin a military campaign in Afghanistan, while Mr Bush’s provocative words emboldened the opposition to Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq. A little more than a year later, the US-led invasion of Iraq – which ultimately led to Saddam’s capture – was under way.
In a further statement of moralising intent that sought to divide nation-states between good and evil, the Bush administration – enunciated by the right-wing hawk and then-undersecretary of state John Bolton – soon added three more countries to the list: Cuba, Libya and Syria. The Muslim ban by the White House’s newest occupant, Donald Trump, has done its bit to pay homage to the “axis of evil”. Although Mr Bush seems to have taken these actions almost a lifetime ago, they define an age of “war on Terror” – another three words that created ripples when Mr Bush first used them following the September 11 attacks. The aim of this “war” was to aggressively target these regimes, creating chaos and confusion in their wake.
Iraq, of course, became the centre of this chaos as a single-minded Mr Bush – who found an equally single-minded ally in the British prime minister Tony Blair – moved to finish the job his father, George HW Bush, left unfinished in the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
Guided by a self-delusional brand of moral authority that the “axis of evil” had brought to bear, Mr Bush took on Iraq with an impressive military gusto. Yet, in failing to plan for rebuilding, he left the country to the wolves. It was hit by instability while the death toll reached an unbelievable level.
Today, the beleaguered nation finds itself combating ISIL militants. There is no end in sight, contrary to claims that they are down and out.
As for Iran, its inclusion in the axis ultimately prompted Mr Bush to raise the spectre of a third world war.
Focusing attention on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the Bush government repeatedly considered carrying out air strikes against the country’s nuclear facilities and other targets. Indeed, in consigning Iran to the realms of evildoer, the US wrecked American-Iranian cooperation in post-9/11 Afghanistan.
However, Barack Obama, who became president after Mr Bush, took a very different tack. In a departure from his predecessor’s policy to brand these states as an “axis of evil”, he sought to pick up the pieces of the Iraq debacle. By doing so, he adopted a more realistic position – a wish to pursue diplomacy and multilateralism. The result was apparent in the achievement of a settlement with Iran – America’s most enduring regional adversary. Crippling sanctions on Tehran were lifted as it pledged to restrict its nuclear ambitions. Even Cuba, which was on the list of “evil” states, was brought out of the cold when Mr Obama re-established diplomatic ties between the two old enemies. With these negotiations, Mr Obama demonstrated the wonders that could be achieved with active diplomatic engagement rather than outright belligerence.
Of course, the axis of evil was not the first time bellicose language was employed to describe global adversaries. President Ronald Reagan also described the Soviet Union, America’s Cold-War opponent, as the “Evil Empire”. For Iran, the US was “the Great Satan” – a term that is still used by some anti-American hardliners.
Whatever it is, terms such as axis of evil (and their political repercussions) reflected a lack of political shrewdness.
Now that Mr Trump has become the president, it remains to be seen what foreign-policy decisions will emanate from the White House, although his controversial domestic directives have raised alarm bells.
There may well emerge another “axis of evil” but whatever happens, Mr Bush’s notorious label will forever remain etched in our political lexicon.
Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, who has worked across Africa, Europe and the Middle East
On Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi
Updated: February 8, 2017 04:00 AM