Do you remember the Axis of Evil? It was one of the major themes of President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech in 2002, 4 months after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States. The president identified Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”
W was roundly criticized for the phrase. Some couldn’t figure out what North Korea was doing in there—we were smashing al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan at the time—while others, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, complained that Iran was being very cooperative and that Bush’s words were a gratuitous slap in the face of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. And even though Saddam Hussein was widely viewed as a monster, nobody thought he’d been involved in the 9/11 operation, and Iraq and Iran were highly partners in anything, having recently ended their long and very bloody war.
Yet Bush saw that all three countries were enemies of ours, were dedicated to developing weapons of mass destruction, and were willing to cooperate in order to expand their power and threaten the peace of the world.
The “Axis of Evil” went hand in hand with Bush’s analysis of the threat we faced: it was, he said, a combination of terrorist groups and countries that supported them. He promised that the United States would not distinguish between the two groups. We would go after the terrorists and their sponsors and allies. That we did it badly—Iran, not Iraq, was the logical target after Afghanistan, and political warfare, not invasion, was the logical method—shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it was already clear in early 2002 that we had to deal with multiple threats, and we’d eventually have to defeat them all or face a grim future.
Would that we’d kept that thought. Instead, we got the grim future.
We now face a more potent Axis of Evil that includes two of the original three (North Korea and Iran, with Iraq up for grabs), plus Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and other countries, and terrorist groups including al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Islamic State. With the exception of their hatred of the West, there is no single ideology that unites them. The new Axis includes Sunni and Shi’ite radical Muslims, Communists and other radical leftists, and nationalistic secular tyrants like Vladimir Putin. They have certainly succeeded in wrecking hopes for a peaceful world.
There is no escape from this war, whatever Western leaders might wish. We will either win it or lose it, and right now we are losing, most obviously in the Middle East and Central Europe, less dramatically in Africa from Somalia to Nigeria, and in Latin America where Iran is busily strengthening its cooperation with local autocrats.
How are we to cope with the new Axis of Evil?