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U.S.: Bush Prepares For State Of Union Speech With 'Axis Of Evil' Remark Still Echoing

  • Jeffrey Donovan

On 28 January, George W. Bush is expected to try to rouse U.S. public opinion in favor of action against Iraq when he delivers his second State of the Union address as U.S. president. Yet the impact of his speech last year, when he dubbed Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an "axis of evil," is still reverberating.

Washington, 23 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A year ago, U.S. President George W. Bush surprised the world when he branded Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an "axis of evil" in his first State of the Union address to the American people.

On 28 January, at the midway point of his first term as president, Bush will deliver his second State of the Union speech, which is expected to be a rousing call for possible military action against Baghdad.

Yet the reverberations of Bush's axis-of-evil speech are still being felt in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

RFE/RL has asked three analysts to look back and assess the impact Bush's speech last year and his subsequent hard-line rhetoric have had on developments in his so-called axis of evil.

James Lindsay is an analyst with the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. Lindsay said that while Bush's European critics, such as the French, blasted the axis-of-evil reference as overly simplistic and moralistic, it has actually forced Europeans to confront what he suggests is their own hypocrisy regarding their professed belief in the supremacy of international law and the United Nations.

Lindsay said that Europeans, who often urge the United States to defer to the UN as the arbiter of international disputes, might not approve of Bush's threats against Iraq. But he said that by threatening to act unless the UN moves to enforce its own Security Council resolutions violated by Saddam Hussein, Bush put his critics on the spot and enabled the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq. "It wasn't until President Bush was willing to say, 'I'm going outside of the UN to do something about Saddam Hussein' that all of a sudden America's allies discovered that if you're going to talk about the rule of law, you've also got to talk about enforcement," Lindsay said.

But as for the impact of Bush's axis-of-evil speech on developments inside Iraq, Lindsay, like the other two analysts, agrees that the State of the Union address was simply one of many signals the White House has sent to unfriendly foreign governments. As such, its impact, while resonant, must be viewed within the larger context of the U.S. administration's overall foreign policy.

Joel S. Wit, a former senior U.S. diplomat, was the main coordinator for the 1994 Agreed Framework deal with North Korea, which temporarily resolved a nuclear crisis with Pyongyang. That deal now appears to be dead after North Korea's admission last fall that it is pursuing a secret program to enrich uranium that can be used for nuclear arms.

Critics of the Bush administration have said that Bush's State of the Union speech was so threatening that Pyongyang was forced to take a series of desperate steps aimed mainly at its self-preservation: turning its back on the Agreed Framework, restarting a banned nuclear reactor capable of producing material for bombs and, most recently, withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But Wit attributed little impact to the axis-of-evil speech itself. He called it just another "data point" that helped persuade the North Koreans that the Bush administration was not interested in continuing the policy of engagement and dialogue of the previous administration of President Bill Clinton.

He said other data points included U.S. talk of using preemptive strikes against "rogue states," and specifically naming North Korea as one such state in discussing the new preemption doctrine last summer.

Wit believes the North Koreans were first alarmed by the Bush administration in June 2001, when the White House publicly announced the end of its policy review, suggesting it would not follow the Clinton approach. Previously, the Clinton administration would have communicated its review results first to the North Koreans. "So I think that gave them a bad feeling. Along the way, there were other times that they put out diplomatic feelers, that they wanted to sit down and talk. And the U.S. wasn't really that responsive. On top of that, there were other events, like the discussion of the preemptive-attack doctrine and also the review of U.S. nuclear strategy," Wit said.

However, Lindsay believes that Bush's axis-of-evil speech, and his general hard-line approach, did not alone prompt North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to start enriching uranium. "Some have gone so far as to allege that this has caused Pyongyang in particular to act badly. I think what's notable in the case of North Korea is that they were enriching uranium since 1997 in violation of an agreement, so it's not clear that the president's [axis-of-evil] speech produced much change in Pyongyang," Lindsay said.

What about Tehran? Shireen Hunter is an Iranian-born analyst at the Center for Strategic and International affairs, a think tank in Washington. Hunter believes the axis-of-evil speech had a more negative than positive impact in Iran, even if some say it helped Iranian reformers, since they could blame religious hard-liners for being thrown by Bush into the same group as Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il.

Hunter said that in the months prior to Bush's speech, Iran had taken several steps toward improving relations with Washington. For one, Iran expressed sympathy for the 11 September attacks on the United States. Tehran then stated that it would aid any U.S. service personnel in need on Iranian territory during the war in Afghanistan. Then, Hunter said, Iran played a key role at the Bonn conference that set up Afghanistan's transitional government.

All of these things, she said, were praised by senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell. And for a brief moment at least, there was talk of a genuine improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations, a rare occurrence in the years since the 1979 Islamic revolution. "After all of this, you come and you [Iran] get hit by the axis-of-evil [speech]. I think it really shocked them. And I think the hard-liners said: 'You see, no matter what you do with the Americans, they are just against the regime. They want to get rid of it. It's not your behavior, it's what you are and what you represent,'" Hunter said.

Hunter said the axis-of-evil speech, by clearly signaling to Iranian religious leaders that their existence, and not their behavior, is the main problem, may have entrenched their position, at least for the time being.

But she also compared Bush's phrase and his hard-line approach to former U.S. President Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and threatening to outpace Moscow in the arms race with a space-based missile-defense system. "Did really 'Star Wars' and Ronald Reagan bring the Soviet Union down? My own feeling is that it may have contributed by exacerbating certain problems, but the Soviet Union came down because of some very, very basic flaws," Hunter said.

Today's Iran, she said, has its own share of very basic flaws, which over time are likely to produce significant change, regardless of what a U.S. president has to say.

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