Shortly after entering office, George Bush stated that “America would defend Taiwan if attacked and the Chinese needed to understand that”. You could almost hear the collective intake of breath. He'd broken an unwritten rule in U.S. – Chinese relations: never tell the full-frontal truth about Taiwan. Were these the words of an arrogant belligerent or a sincere Texan raised to speak his mind?
U.S. President's rarely use careless words in public speeches anymore. In this age, every word is instantly transmitted around the world, received by specialists working for foreign governments. Their job is to translate, analyze and interpret the meaning of each word and how it relates to them. The Shah was said to have paid keen attention to all of Jimmy Carter's speeches, agonizing over phrases like “we no longer have to deal with unsavory dictators in our fight against communism”.
Conscious of the microscope, a foreign policy speech attracts a lot of eyeballs in the White House and State Department, as bureaucrats manipulate every word and phrase to clarify and diminish any chance of offense or misinterpretation. This intense scrutiny is designed to excise potential gaffs and convey meaning without creating controversy.
So, with all these brilliant minds reviewing his State of the Union speech, how did we arrive at the “Axis of Evil”? There are two agendas being advanced here. The first has to do with George Bush's character. It's clear from his campaign and his first months in office, W was far more influenced by Ronald Reagan than his father.
Reagan over-ruled strong State Department protests on two occasions, calling the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire”, then delivering his famous “tear down this wall” declaration at the Brandenburg gate. He had strong convictions about communism and it's effects on those governed by it. In the face of criticism, his instincts told him to speak the truth as God had given him the grace to see it.The result was a victory credited exclusively to Reagan: the collapse of communism.
Mikael Gorbachev denies that Reagan's words had any effect on their policies, but other diplomats revealed the remarks created great consternation over how they should respond. The East German people heard the message and became ever bolder, eventually taking to the streets by the thousands to demand reform.
This history lesson has not been lost on W, who almost certainly faced strong protests over the “Axis of Evil”. One can imagine a pale-faced Colin Powell. But W is a Reaganite and a Texan, which means his heart supercedes his brain for control of his tongue. Post Sept. 11, his convictions were that terrorism was an evil scourge, a fact few Americans would dispute, but he went further by stating that those who sponsored terrorism were evil also.
The State Department lists seven countries as state sponsors of terror, and what better place to denounce them publicly than the State of the Union? However, when you peruse the list, there are several countries that are not good candidates for a public Presidential spanking. Three of them possess weapons of mass destruction. North Korea has missiles and exports the technology, Iraq has chemical/bio, and Iran has a little of both.
Libya and Sudan were getting out of the terror business, Syria was a vital ally in the war on terror, and Cuba was well, Cuba. That left three — the perfect number for an axis and a good cross-sampling. The rest would get the message. It also conjured images of another axis that threatened the whole world, and that's the imagery he wanted to create.
“Our goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America and our friends with weapons of mass destruction.” Here W made the link to highlight the short distance a nuclear bomb could travel from state control to outlaw hands, a frightening scenario that neutralized the policy that had always protected us: mutually assured destruction.
It's clear from his message he was focusing exclusively on the determination of these regimes to acquire the weapons and the potential catastrophic consequences, which leads us to the second agenda for the “Axis of Evil”: to isolate them in the international community, and possibly create a gulf between them and their people.
“North Korea is a regime arming itself with missiles, while starving it's citizens. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom.” Many Iranians have ignored this part of the speech, but it's the most important for them, because of the three axis members, Iran has the best chance of throwing off the totalitarian yoke.
So, Bush accomplished his objectives: denounce state sponsors of terror, and isolate them from their people and the global community with a sound-byte that has resonated around the world, “Axis of Evil”.
Did it work?
In Iran's case there was predictable outrage in parliament, but as Thomas Friedman pointed out in his New York Times article: “Reformers are now saying, look where your policies have lead us.” Khameini was so worried he made it a crime to even talk about relations with America. A staunch reformer has just been elected speaker. Emissaries were sent to Beirut to muzzle Hezbollah, and the rabidly anti-American Afghan warlord, Hekmatyar, was booted out of the country.
While reforms have been under way in Iran for years now, September 11 and it's aftermath unquestionably have accelerated the pace, and these events suggest the same kind of soul-searching that occurred in the Soviet Union under the glare of Reagan's criticism. 30 months after he said, “tear down this wall”, it came crashing down.
George Bush placed Iran in the “Axis of Evil” on January 29, 2001. Will history repeat itself with an East German-style revolution in Iran? The clock is ticking.