Shutting Down the Axis

If I were Saddam Hussein, I wouldn’t be sleeping well at night.

President George W. Bush seems determined to make good on his State of the Union pledge that he would not “permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” And Iraq is number one on Bush’s hit list.

An eventual attack looks so likely that speculation about the specific form it might take has largely obscured consideration of the fundamental nature of Bush’s foreign policy. That is unfortunate. For when Bush called Iraq, Iran and North Korea an “axis of evil,” he did much more than issue a specific threat; he announced a sea change in the way the United States does business.

For decades, we have responded to threats only after paying a price in American blood. The Clinton years typify this approach. We knew about Osama bin Laden long before he blew up our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But we did nothing to incapacitate him; and Clinton’s “response” to the embassy attacks—lobbing a few missiles at Osama’s empty tents and then forgetting about him—could hardly have been less effective.

Bush, by contrast, has made clear with his words—and he seems determined to make clear with his actions—that the age of foreign policy by reaction is over. Instead of waiting until our enemies attack, we will preemptively destroy their capacity for attack. That is the real import and the true strength of Bush’s tough talk.


Criticisms of the “axis of evil” doctrine, so fashionable in the world of Harvardian intellectual snobbery, have by now grown quite stale. Nobody who matters believes any of them. Bush’s political opponents certainly don’t. I recall a certain House Minority Leader, in the Democratic response to the State of the Union, saying of President Bush, “there is no daylight between us on this war on terrorism.” The American public certainly doesn’t. In an ABC poll released this week, Bush came out at number three (behind Lincoln and Kennedy) when Americans were asked to name the country’s greatest president.

But Bush is a Republican, and he speaks in a Texas drawl, and we are at Hahvahd. Which means, of course, that we are obliged to prove how much smarter we are than the cretin from Crawford. So we take our lead from the French (who, when it comes to snobbery, have us beaten) and call Bush’s “axis of evil” comments simplistic, uninformed, antagonistic, unilateralist and any other negative adjective that comes to mind.

Although these criticisms are, for all practical purposes, dead, I’d like to spend a few words burying them.

They fall into two groups, each of which finds an analogue in Harvard’s Core Curriculum.

First are the “Moral Reasoning” critics. They dislike the word “evil” for its religious connotations, and they bristle (with great confidence in their own moral sense) at the implication of our moral superiority.

Second are the “Historical Studies” critics. They dislike the word “axis” because, unlike the axis powers in World War II, Iraq, Iran and North Korea aren’t part of a formal alliance. These critics then impress us with their erudition by noting that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea have different historical and cultural backgrounds, and even speak different languages. (Who knew?)

Neither criticism is very persuasive.

No matter what philosophical uncertainty exists about the finer points of political morality, people agree on the basics. For example: human rights, freedom and democratic government are good. If we accept that claim (and almost everyone does), it is natural to regard whatever endangers those good things as “bad”—or, to use a stronger word, “evil.” That word need not be associated with religious ideas. Bush’s use requires “evil” to mean nothing more than “opposed to the good.”

This isn’t controversial stuff. Democracy, human rights and civil liberties are good. North Korea selling missiles is evil. Iran arming Palestinian terrorists: evil. Saddam Hussein gassing Kurds, making anthrax and training commando teams to hijack planes (as he did in the Salman Pak neighborhood of Baghdad): very evil. And there is a great big Evil, with a capital “E,” common to all three nations: weapons of mass destruction. Each of these countries is building weapons that, were they to fall into the hands of terrorists or hostile regimes, would threaten our very survival.

I think that is precisely what Bush had in mind when he grouped Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The State of the Union is not a response paper, and it matters little for U.S. policy that there are differences between these nations. What matters is the similarity: each opposes democratic values, and each, by manufacturing nukes, germs or gas, is a menace to the free world. If we wish to preserve the things we call “good,” we must stop them.

The “axis of evil” doctrine is clear in a way that American foreign policy has not been clear in a long time. Its message is unmistakably simple: “If you threaten the democratic values we defend and hold dear, you are evil. And we will eliminate your threat. Period. If you don’t believe us, ask the Taliban.”

Or—soon enough—“Ask Saddam.” When the bully from Baghdad refuses to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back in Iraq, U.S. air power will pulverize his military infrastructure (including its weapons production facilities), allowing the Iraqi National Congress to oust him. France will fret; Arab states will feign disapproval to appease radical factions of their citizenry. But the coalition will survive. (Funny how the coalition survived in spite of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, in spite of bombing during Ramadan, in spite of everything else the neurotic nail-biters said would crumble it.) The Iraqi people will be freer. The world will be safer.

And the axis of evil will know that when Bush vowed to “fight freedom’s fight,” he meant it.

Jason L. Steorts ’01-’03 is a philosophy concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.