Thursday, October 19, 2006

# Posted 7:59 AM by Patrick Porter  

MORAL LANGUAGE AND STRATEGY: I would be very interested to hear what our readers think of President Bush's term 'Axis of evil', which he used in January 2002 to describe regimes that sponsor terrorism and seek WMD.

When it comes to the word 'evil', I have little patience with those who dismiss it entirely as unsophisticated or low-brow. Some ideas and actions are evil, and after the century of the Holocaust and other genocides, there are few other words that can accurately describe and judge these crimes. The three regimes Bush characterised as evil, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, are all evil in their own way, though Saddam and Kim Jong Il probably exceed the Iranian theocrats in their brutality.

And of course, there are all sorts of dangers that come with the word. If used unreflectively, it can encourage the Manichean view of the enemy as inhuman and oneself as unimpeachable. If used too often, it can trivialise the word. And people can forget their own capacity to inflict or tolerate evil. But this doesn't mean the word is intrinsically objectionable, just that it should be handled carefully.

With respect to grand strategy, there is a debate that keeps coming back to Oxblog: is it a mistake, when making these judgements, to lump together different enemies? Was Bush accurately naming an existing threat, a threat in the form of regimes that were collaborating with one another, a threat that we could not afford to ignore?

Or does such language become self-fulfilling, encouraging a tighter relationship between such enemies? Even if the relationship already existed loosely, did Bush's words effectively harden it? Does a display of highly rhetorical hostility push them further into the quest for nuclear capability? Is it better to exploit divisions between enemies than name them as a single body?

(13) opinions -- Add your opinion

Big mistake.

I think Bush's use of the term Axis of Evil was a huge mistake by the bush administration. It clearly signaled to all parties that we would not negotiate with them and that we would handle them in the same way.

I have no problem with labeling certain actions as morally reprehensable (i.e., evil), but to label a whole government evil paints you into a corner. By labeling some regime evil, you have flat out told them that you consider them enemies and there will be no negotiation. This is fine if your strategy is to broadcast this information, but in general I think it would have been better to simple point out the actions we think are bad and what goals we want to achieve rather than simple labeling countries as good and evil.
I agree with the first comment. Although it may have been morally justified to call those regimes evil, it was a huge strategic mistake.

This is especially true for Iran. At the time Khatami and the moderates were still in favor, and Iran was a natural ally against the Taliban. It could have been the beginning of a gradual warming of relations. Instead, Bush decided lump Iran in with the Sunni extremists, and close off our chance to exploit that fault (maybe he didn't know the difference between Sunni and Shia).

Also, I would bet that Bush's declaration made hardline anti-Americanism more politically viable in Iran, and was pretty helpful in getting Ahmadinejad elected.
Yeah. Some of the worst people in the world got their knickers in a twist and decided to become even worse instead of trying to be like Mr. Rogers.

The Axis of Evil may cause the perpetually indignant to pretend that it makes the bad guys a monolith. But the question is whether the bad guys think so.
The cross fertilization of evilness preceded Bush's statement.
But none of them is going to take one for the team if another is in trouble, unless there's something in it for them.
Sure. The mad mullahs, Saddaam, and Li'l Kim are turned into a band of brothers by Bush.
Hey. Got an idea. It's raining here, today. Let's blame Bush.
I thought it was a poor choice of words; the phrase 'axis' implied some sort of alliance between the countries which simply didn't exist.
It was a mistake because it put them on their guard, and was a cue that they should ramp up their nuclear programs.

Strategically, we should have played friendly until Bush was seriously able to threaten them. Clearly Bush was on an Afghan high.

From a purely factual standpoint, it was in error because the three did not make up anything like an 'axis'. If anything, Iran/Pakistan/NorKo would be an axis, given the trade in missile tech between NorKo and Pakistan, and the trade in nuclear tech between Pakistan and Iran.
The term "Axis of Evil" is equivalent to President Reagan's "Evil Empire" phrase. They were both accurate and a nice, concise statement of what our opponents were like.
Can't argue with that Jim. A lot of people were wetting their pants over Reagan using that term back then too -- the same (both literally and of that mind-set) that are today no doubt.
I think he was right. What are our primary foreign policy concerns today? Iraq, Iran and North Korea. What would our concerns be if the President had done nothing? Iraq (for different reasons), Iran and North Korea (both for the same reasons).

Does anyone really think they all could have been accomodated somehow? After we spent the 90s trying to contain Iraq, engage Iran, and bribe North Korea?

Even if it is a self- fulfilling prophecy, he still acted on what he saw as the threat, and didn't try to pretend otherwise. Far too many Western leaders simply won't talk about what really threatens their countries. This rare bit of clarity on the part of the president, who usually contents himself with bland speeches about 'freedom' and 'evil- doers' was historic.
Bush was right to use that term. First of all, they were evil. They didn't become evil because we called them that. Part of Bush's job after 9/11 was to explain the dangers facing us to the American public. That requires making it clear that these are not people who are "misunderstood" but who are fundamentally dangerous to us and our allies by their very nature.

We were going to have to oppose the ambitions of all 3 governments after 9/11 whether we called them evil or not. And yes they would have responded to anything that inhibited them.

Calling them evil does not mean we were committed to overthrowing them.
It did not commit us to any particular strategy, but it makes the seriousness of the problem clear.

We thought the Soviet Union was evil, but containment was effective.
The last option, however Machiavellian it is, is our most realistic and effective method of defeating radical Islam. I highly recommend the writing of James Kurth on that issue. Yet saying that is almost a moot point at this stage, since we've already travelled down a road of unifying our enemies by our rhetoric and policies. First of all, these three countries are certainly evil in their governmental practices. Yet which of them attacked us on 9/11? Which one of them gave material support to al Qaeda before 9/11 and thus had direct responsibility for that day? Not one of these three countries had any relationship to events leading up to that day, yet as soon as Afghanistan was supposedly settled, we turned immediately to these three countries. The domestic rhetoric was clear. Bush tied, in nearly every speech, Iraq to 9/11. Yet denied ever doing so, because he was able to say it so it was implied, but not explicitly stated. The actual countries that played a material role in producing the al Qaeda operatives were/are our allies, thus we were put in a diplomatic bind. How could we honestly trace out the ideological lineage of the conspirators without upsetting the Saudi's and the Pakistani's?

We'v botched this up so badly so far, I don't see us getting out cleanly any time soon. The best we can hope for is to extricate ourselves from the morass of the Iraqi civil war, let them fight it out, and find a way to negotiate a three state solution. All the while encouraging (yes, I said it) a Sunni/Shia divide (so as to keep their eyes on each other rather tham on us) AND encouraging a moderate expression of Islam that we can work with. That may seem contradictory, and in some ways it is, but keeping them at each other's throats while working on moderating the western Muslims here may be the best way to "keep it there" and away from here. We also need to identify why we have a more intergrated Islamic community here in the US while the Europeans can't seem to pull it off. But that's another subject.
Chris G:

Iranian moderates. Surely you jest. Khatami was a oderate in the sense that a 6 inch flood is more moderate than a twelve inch flood.

The current and present are cut from the same cloth. The current one is just taking a more open approach.

The suggestion that Khatami's government would have been a foil against the Taliban is equally ludicrous. There are those in the Sunni and Shia communities who fight against any form of
Western influence. They will combine to fight when the need arises.

Of course you're right that Khatami is only a moderate within the Iranian context, but what does that matter? He advocated a more practical foreign policy than his predecessors and successor, and was in favor of engagement with the West. His actions were limited by the clerical regime, but he's certainly no Ahmadinejad.

I also agree that there are elements in both the Sunni and Shia communities that fight any Western influence, but I think that they mostly fight it separately rather than together. Iran also supported anti-Taliban groups throughout the 1990s, and I believe that there was even some low-level cooperation between Iran and the U.S. in the early days of the Afghan war (not 100% sure on that one though). I maintain that Iran's history with the Taliban and its direction under Khatami constitute a missed opportunity for engagement and cooperation.
The problem isn't in the phrase. The problem was that the phrase implied commitments and actions that Bush wasn't willing to make.

When push came to shove, our Crawford cowboy went Brokeback on us.
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