WASHINGTON -- It was a catchy phrase. Perhaps too catchy.
A year after President Bush used the State of the Union address to declare Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "axis of evil," the phrase has taken on a life of its own. With this year's address scheduled for Jan. 28 and the U.S. on the cusp of war with Iraq, the legacy of the "axis of evil" weighs heavily on the speechwriters and policy-makers hard at work on Bush's speech.
Even critics agree that the "axis of evil" was a clever piece of rhetoric in explaining the president's policies to the American people. But as foreign policy, there is wide consensus that it exacerbated the dangers it attempted to contain.
"It was a speechwriter's dream and a policy-maker's nightmare," said Warren Christopher, secretary of State under President Clinton.
The phrase caused immediate controversy. A year later, many experts say it's clear it also has caused real damage.
"It was harmful both conceptually and operationally," said Graham Allison, government professor and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "Conceptually, the 'axis' suggested a relationship among the entities that doesn't exist. More important, operationally, the reaction of the world and the North Korea debacle demonstrates that it was a mistake."
The "axis of evil" language upped the rhetorical ante significantly. Some believe it played a role in undermining Iran's moderate leaders and squelching the country's nascent democracy movement. Many believe it helped provoke North Korea into nuclear confrontation.
The man who half-coined the phrase was speechwriter David Frum, who left the White House a few months after Bush used it. In a recent book, Frum said his assignment for the State of the Union last year was to extrapolate from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to make a case for "going after Iraq."
For inspiration, he thought back to Pearl Harbor and pulled a copy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "date which will live in infamy" speech off the shelf. And he found what he was looking for.
"No country on Earth more closely resembled one of the old Axis powers than present-day Iraq," Frum wrote. "And just as FDR saw in Pearl Harbor a premonition of even more terrible attacks from Nazi Germany, so Sept. 11 had delivered an urgent warning of what Saddam Hussein could and almost certainly would do with nuclear and biological weapons."
One Country No 'Axis'
The argument was emotional and powerful. As Frum put it, and Bush eventually said it, the lesson they took from Sept. 11 was that "the United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
But Hussein's Iraq wasn't an "axis," which in the popular mind consists of three aligned powers. To fill it in, Frum added two other troublesome nuclear wannabes -- Iran and North Korea. Frum acknowledged there was no formal alliance among the three, as there had been among Germany, Japan and Italy during World War II, but argued there were still important similarities.
"The Axis powers disliked and distrusted one another," Frum wrote. "They shared only one thing: resentment of the power of the West and contempt for democracy."
So the phrase he came up with was "axis of hatred." He said his boss, chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, changed it to "axis of evil" to match the theological language Bush had adopted after the terrorist attacks.
The phrase struck a chord -- first with Bush, who liked it and made it his own, and with the president's supporters and advisors.
"The president was pointing to common characteristics between some states, and these are brutally repressive regimes that care nothing about the aspirations or even the well-being of their people," national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said.
But for many others, the analogy was a stretch. No matter how much of a menace Iraq might pose, critics say it was careless and simplistic to lump it together with Iran and North Korea, countries with which it had next to nothing in common.
The leadership is secular in Iraq and religious in Iran, and the two countries -- far from being allies -- are sworn enemies. As Iran's leaders appeared to moderate their anti-American stance in recent years and a democracy movement appeared, Iraq grew more repressive and belligerent. North Korea, meanwhile, remains locked in the grip of an anachronistic communist dictatorship and, far from colluding with other nations, may instead be the most isolated country in the world.
Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, said it was obvious for a long time before the speech that the Bush administration was focusing on the dangers posed by "rogue nations" to a degree many experts and allies considered excessive.
The speech "lumped together three countries that the people in the administration were already thinking about in the same way," Betts said. "Everyone knew before that this was the way they thought, but [the speech] did it in a pithy way that made it hard to ignore."
At least in public, White House officials reject the charge that the speech caused damage. They note that North Korea was pursuing a uranium-based weapon program in violation of its international commitments long before Bush uttered the "axis of evil" phrase.
"It's rather impossible to connect those dots," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said this month. "North Korea took the action before the president was even in office."
Nonetheless, in what could be seen as a tacit acknowledgment of error, White House officials appear to have dropped the phrase from their lexicon. Bush himself has not used it since August.
In fact, a year after putting Iraq and North Korea in the same camp, administration officials now are at pains to insist that the two aspiring nuclear powers really are different after all: We need to deal with North Korea diplomatically, they say, but we may need to go to war against Iraq.
Having put the three countries together in one basket "makes it more difficult to deal with them on a different basis," Christopher said.
Another difficulty, experts say, was the choice of the word "evil."
"It's too heavy and radioactive a word," said Joseph Montville, director of the Preventive Diplomacy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You can't make a deal with evil. You can only kill it."
In other words, it sends a message to friend and foe alike that the United States will not negotiate. And domestically, it makes it easy to explain why the country needs to attack Iraq, but it makes it hard to explain why the administration needs to engage with North Korea.
Dae Sook Suh, a Korea expert at the University of Hawaii, said it would be wrong to lay all blame for the North Korea crisis on Bush's phraseology. Instead, he said, a crisis was bound to arise during Bush's tenure because the 1994 agreement freezing North Korea's nuclear program was gradually unraveling. What the "axis of evil" speech did -- along with other unvarnished language, such as Bush calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a "pygmy" -- was accelerate it.
Words Seen as Rude
Blunt speech may be admired in the United States, Suh noted, but in Asia it is considered rude, threatening and unseemly, especially for a president.
"Bush may be going the right way in policy terms, but I don't applaud him for using this cowboy language in diplomatic circles," Suh said.
In retrospect, the "axis of evil" phrase appears to have caused the most damage to relations with North Korea. Montville said it is ironic, because putting North Korea into the "axis" seems to have been something of an afterthought.
"It was [added] to avoid intensifying the suspicion of Muslim countries that the war on terrorism was a war on Islam," Montville said.
This year, he posited, speechwriters and presidential advisors are likely to be more cautious. The country already is fighting a war on terrorism, threatening another with Iraq and trying to avoid one with North Korea.
"The temptation is to be rhetorically clever. But we can't afford the emotional satisfaction of using phrases and words that make headlines the next day but cause us problems later because we fail to think about the implications of the language that we use," Montville said. "A lack of prudence can put you in a box down the road."
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times