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The phrase has revived Bush's reputation abroad as a swaggering unilateralist, just at the very moment his message is supposed to be coalition, coalition, coalition. The outcry from foreign diplomats was followed by various White House explanations, none of them particularly clarifying. Some aides insisted the phrase was a conscious reference to the World War II Axis powers; others argued it was not. The President was a straight talker, others said, and was proud of the phrase. Yet while in Asia and since, he didn't mention it once. Secretary of State Colin Powell, though stoutly defending Bush's expression, also called it a "bloody term."
In an environment where a single phrase can cause so much consternation, it's no wonder the White House was both swift and remorseless in burying the Pentagon's proposed Office of Strategic Influence. When word leaked that the office's mission would include the spreading of false information to foreign journalists, the White House knew what it had to do. "It was dead when it was born," sniffs one aide. Their pride wounded, Defense officials complained privately that they never had a chance to explain themselves. It's not as if the White House and State Department have changed many hearts and minds in the Arab world, they added, citing a new Gallup poll of nine Middle Eastern countries that found deep and broad resentment of the U.S.
Message machines have their own ineluctable logic, even when they're malfunctioning. As Hughes says, changing hearts and minds in the Arab world will take years. But at home, the energy task force is a bigger headache. "This isn't about p.r.," Hughes and others keep saying. "It's about principle." Time to oil the machine.