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Analysis: Famous Phrase From President Bush's Last State Of The Union Address Still Generating Controversy One Year Later

All Things Considered: January 28, 2003

Axis of Evil


President Bush delivered his first State of the Union speech a year ago tonight. It lasted 48 minutes and focused on terrorism and the war in Afghanistan. He also touched on standard State of the Union subjects: the economy, the federal budget and jobs for Americans. But as NPR's Mike Shuster reports, that speech will be remembered for a single phrase.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Three words, the most famous that President Bush has uttered in his two years of office, linking Iraq, Iran and North Korea.


President GEORGE W. BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.

SHUSTER: The original phrase was `axis of hatred.' David Frum, then a speechwriter in the White House, was given the task of connecting Iraq, Iran and al-Qaeda. He came up with `axis of hatred' and, Frum says, submitted that to chief speechwriter Michael Gerson and to President Bush.

Mr. DAVID FRUM (Former Speechwriter, White House): One of the things that Gerson and the president had agreed from the beginning was they wanted to use the language of absolute good and evil, a more theological kind of language, as a way of explaining this struggle. And so `axis of hatred' became `axis of evil,' which I think is rhetorically much more powerful. I think that was a good change. It may have been less exact, but more powerful.

SHUSTER: North Korea was added later, over the objections of some in the State Department, because the White House did not what the axis of evil to comprise only Muslim nations. The speech went on to elaborate a theme that became the top priority of the Bush administration.


Pres. BUSH: By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

SHUSTER: Although the `axis of evil' phrase played well among Americans, it struck many foreign policy experts as ill-advised on several counts. Joseph Montville, a retired career Foreign Service Officer, says it is that theological connotation that President Bush wanted that troubles him.

Mr. JOSEPH MONTVILLE (Retired Foreign Service Officer): I am very concerned about the use of the term `evil' in public policy statements. They could come back to haunt you. The trouble with evil is that you can't make a deal with it; you have to kill it. Once you've put a state of people in a category of evil, you appear to be setting them up for some serious punishment.

SHUSTER: Others like Gideon Rose, the managing editor of the journal Foreign Affairs, were troubled by the concept's imprecision.

Mr. GIDEON ROSE (Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs): The real problem with the phrase lies less in the `evil' section than in the `axis' section, because the threats they pose are not linked to each other, they're not the same kind of threats and they're not going to be dealt with in the same way.

SHUSTER: According to David Frum, the White House knew that links among Iran, Iraq, North Korea and al-Qaeda were not well-established. Jessica Matthews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has suggested that a more plausible trio of axis nations would have been Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, which have shared nuclear and missile technology. But the president could not have said that given the importance of Pakistan's support for the American war on terrorism. It is this appreciation of the complexity of the real world that Matthews says was absent from the president's words.

Ms. JESSICA MATTHEWS (President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Later in the speech, the president said, `Rarely has the world faced a choice more clear or consequential.' I think everything we've seen is that this war is not clear at all; how to fight it, what its causes are. We certainly learned that this is not a clear set of choices or a clear set of policy decisions; anything but.

SHUSTER: Some critics of the president argue that the `axis of evil' speech has made pursuing diplomatic solutions to dangerous threats more difficult. That charge is most often leveled against the administration's policy on North Korea. But Henry Sokolski, a Pentagon official during the earlier Bush period and now the head of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center, says the words undermine those trying to bring change in Iran.

Mr. HENRY SOKOLSKI (Head, Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center): If they complicated any place, it might be in Iran. The reformers--they never had an easy time of associating themselves with the United States, but the speech made it a little more difficult for them to do so. I don't want to exaggerate that because it was already pretty difficult for them to associate with the United States, but it didn't make it any easier.

SHUSTER: And even on Iraq, which the administration perceived then and perceives now as the most serious threat, the phrase has made for some difficulties. The world doesn't know whether the Bush administration views Iraq as the primary threat or just first on the list of potential targets for war, says Gideon Rose.

Mr. ROSE: What the administration doesn't seem to understand is that it would be much easier to sell an Iraq operation if other people around the world did not believe that it was the start of an American aggression, series of actions, elsewhere. And so the `axis of evil' language made it seem as if ironically it wasn't just Iraq that you were going after, but it was an entire swath of the globe.

SHUSTER: Former speechwriter David Frum rejects all of these criticisms.

Mr. FRUM: I think the speech and this phrase was exactly right. It made the American people understand this is a moral conflict. This is not a fight over some oil well, it's not a fight over strategic advantage, that what we were are engaged in here is a struggle over what kind of century the 21st century is going to be.

SHUSTER: There is no question, though, that the phrase has complicated the administration's ability to carry out foreign policy; a consequence that the White House did not expect when the president first uttered his most memorable phrase a year ago. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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