On 29th January 2002, George W. Bush condemned Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the ‘axis of evil’ during the course of his State of the Union Speech, addressed to both the Senate the House of Representatives of the US Congress (Kim et al, 109). He said: “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an Axis of Evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger”. He further added “All nations should know America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security” and served virtual ultimatums to all these three countries: “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons” (Bush, 2002). Originally, the expression suggested to President Bush was “axis of hatred” which was replaced by chief speechwriter Michael Gerson to the more theological “axis of evil”. As the statements were issued in the immediate aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on the WTC, the labeling of the three countries as ‘axis of evil’ President Bush raised several questions – What did Iran, Iraq and North Korea have to do with 9/11? Why was the war widened to include these three countries before Al Qaeda and its collaborators were eradicated? Why were Iran, Iraq, and North Korea targeted as the countries with “the world’s most destructive weapon?” (Buchanan, 2005, 20). This paper explores the rationale and impact of President George W. Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech in January 2002.
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In this speech, President Bush made it clear that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are dangerous enemies of the United States. The assumption that these three countries were a threat to the new global order was based on the fear that they are basically ‘outlaw nations’ or ‘rogue states’ as labeled during the Clinton days and have the power to destabilize the world through their weapon power and sponsorship of terrorism combined with their anti-American stand. George Bush considered these nations as sharing a ‘siege mentality. The speech also revealed how Israel and its allies have begun to dominate US foreign policy in the Middle East. The Jerusalem Post published many articles reporting Israeli praise for Bush’s speech, particularly for including Iran in the ‘axis of evil’ (Fayazmanesh, 2008, 114). Iran, Iraq, and North Korea have three fundamental similarities. They are all governed by autocratic regimes; second, militarily they have followed for long the acquisition and proliferation of WMD and missile systems. Finally, they have the military and political capacity to destabilize the world and threaten the national interests of the United States and its allies (Hayden et al, 123). In this speech George W. Bush also made three positive foreign policy implications; the war on terror is linked to the states that have violated the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. Second, there would be very little chance of diplomatic talks between the US and each of the three countries and the US would be ready to take military against any of the three anytime. Third, Bush also implied that he will take similar measures against state sponsors of terrorism such as Cuba, Libya, Sudan, and Syria if they did not change their behavior (Hayden et al, 2003, 123). The stirrings of such an aggressive foreign policy that the Weekly Standard (February 8, 2002, 4) claimed would become known as the Bush doctrine, were compared to the Cold War during which the US challenged communist regimes as a menace to world peace and the free market (Herbst, 2003, 21). Though Iraq was subjected to years of weapons inspections by the United Nations and international sanctions, Saddam Hussein’s government had been suspected of developed nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons (BBC News, 2002, 1). Moreover, reports said that Iraq was trying to rebuild its missile industry, and the fact that Iraq did not allow United Nations arms inspectors into the country, made it all the more suspicious. In the case of Iran, though there has been the rise of moderate elements, the relationship between Iran and the US remained clouded with hostility and suspicion (BBC News, 2002, 1). Moreover, there were CIA reports of Iran having chemical and biological weapons and being in the process of developing nuclear weapons (Pena, 2002, 1). Reports also suggest that North Korea has ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States by 2015. President Mohammad Khatami enjoys good support among the moderates but this does not mean much because it is the hardliners who control the military, intelligence, judiciary, and security forces (BBC News, 2002, 1). Tehran also supported active militant groups, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad (Pena, 2002, 1). As a result, it appears on the US State Department list as a state sponsor of terrorism. Iran also has a navy that is strong enough to control the flow of oil from the Gulf for brief periods according to US Defence Intelligence Agency Chief Vice Admiral Thomas Wilson. Though these strengths of Iran were developed as defensive measures, the US perceived the nation as a global threat. In the case of North Korea, Washington viewed with apprehension, its long-range ballistic missile program and the export of sensitive ballistic missile technology to states like Iran, Libya, Syria, and Egypt and its excessive plutonium resources. The sanity of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the specter of ‘Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, missile technology and advances weapons of Iraq and North Korea, and the fact that they do not have democratic rule are the major reasons behind Bush’s axis of evil speech in 2002.
Although on one hand, the very notion of an axis of evil suggests that the Bush administration had inadequate clarity in the realm of geopolitics, it also opened the way to justifying military intervention by the US any place, any time for any reason (Kellner, 2003, 207). Moreover, the speech, by calling attention to countries that produce weapons of mass destruction, tried to legitimize preemptive strikes against countries that the United States chose to stigmatize and attack. In response, several states, including India and Pakistan claimed the same right and threatened to initiate nuclear strikes if they felt less than fully secure. Another point is that the ‘axis of evil’ countries could be used to legitimate the production of the Star Wars missile defense system that critics had claimed had not been proven workable. As can be expected, the regimes named by Bush protested his demonizing rhetoric. While angry marchers protested in Iran, the North Korean media described Bush as the head of an empire of evil. South Korean newspapers accused Bush of undermining efforts to finalize the Geneva Agreement of dismantling North Korea’s Nuclear Program (Kim et al, 2008, 109). Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of State pointed out that Bush had single-handedly destroyed the initial relations she had established with North Korea during the Clinton Age (Kim et al., 2008, 109). Critics also opposed the inclusion of North Korea, which had no history of global terrorism, and Iran, whose support the Bush administration had previously sought in the war on terror. Logically, the three regimes were not an axis or an interconnected group (Herbst, 2003, 21) and each one of them needed different policies. Hence there was alarm at the hyperbolic martial tone of President Bush’s axis of evil speech and at the implied threat of the United States unilateral military action. These words of President Bush created disturbances even in the Kremlin because rhetoric from Washington affected Moscow’s diplomatic efforts in connection with Iraq and Iran. The Economist (The Economist Global Agenda, 2002, 1) suggested that Bush’s words were designed to distract the attention of Americans from economic issues by focusing on terrorism while still, some others saw the speech as an act of bravery designed to rationalize the Pentagon’s long term plans (Herbst, 2003, 21).
The U.S. “Axis of evil” approach backfired in the cases of Iran and North Korea. The Arab and the Muslim population viewed the anti-terror campaign as a strategic way of exploiting the oil resources of Iran and Iraq. In a New York Times article of Jan. 5, 2003, entitled “A War for Oil, Thomas Friedman states that any war that is launched in Iraq will only be in part about oil. He raised the question “Why are they going after Saddam Hussein with 82nd Airborne and North Korea with diplomatic kid gloves – when North Korea already has nuclear weapons, the missiles to deliver them, a record of selling dangerous weapons to anyone with cash, 1,00,000 U.S. troops in its missile range and a leader who is even crueler to his own people than Saddam?”. (El Ayouty et al, 2004, 131). In North Korea, it did not deter that country from declaring that it possessed nuclear weapons and intended to resume its plutonium enrichment program in contravention of its international agreements with the United States.
In his speech, George w. Bush had stated the obvious: that the United States would never again wait to be attacked. But the real issue was whether or not the states constituting the axis of evil posed threats that required preventive action. It would seem that neither North Korea nor Iran did post a threat, for the admin decided to deal with both through diplomatic means (Melanson, 2005, 311). Apart from these conflicts, it must be remembered that Mr. Bush’s understanding of the Axis of Evil was rooted in the attacks on the US which took place on September 11, 2001. But why did Bush include North Korea or Iran or Iraq despite the three countries having no relation with the event? (Kim et al, 2008, 109). Naming them an “axis of evil” to justify expanding the war on terrorism seems premature at best and misguided at worst. Al Qaeda and the September 11 attacks demonstrate that terrorism has essentially been privatized and that al Qaeda works on a business model. Thus, the organization has its own political agenda and simply uses weak countries as fertile ground for breeding terrorism. Removing regimes that are seen as being hostile to the United States will not destroy al Qaeda. Thus, Bush’s concept of an axis of evil misses the mark (Black, 2004,163).
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