When President Bush first used "Axis of Evil" to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea in his State of the Union address last January, the phrase instantly entered the lexicon of contemporary politics. For the President's fans, the words cleverly linked memories of World War II to Bush's belief that the contest with terrorists and the states who succor them is a war of moral clarity. For his foes, the term was cheap and illogical nonsense; there was no "axis," it was said, for the three nations posed different and discrete threats. As for branding them evil, that just proved once again that Bush was an ignorant cowboy who saw a multihued world in monochrome.
All things considered, the phrase sounds a lot better now than it did a year ago. In January, Bush said the three states were "seeking weapons of mass destruction" and posed a "grave and growing danger." On last week's evidence, he's right. Within a few days, the following things happened: Spanish and American forces detained and then released a cargo of North Korean Scud missiles hidden in a stateless vessel bound for Yemen. The shipment was legal, but given the tinderbox nature of Yemeni society, irresponsible. Then Pyongyang announced that it intended to restart work on nuclear reactors that had been closed down since a crisis with the U.S. in 1994; spent fuel from the reactors could be used to build nuclear bombs. One day later, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that recent satellite photographs of Iranian nuclear facilities showed that "Iran is actively working to develop nuclear-weapons capability." Tehran denied that it was engaged in a nuclear-weapons program and invited international inspections of its facilities. But Western diplomats in Tehran work on the assumption that Iran is five to seven years from having a nuclear bomb. To conclude the week, both U.S. and British officials claimed that, notwithstanding its 12,000-page report to the United Nations, Iraq was still dissembling on its programs for building weapons of mass destruction.
Those who still hate Bush's rhetoric can take comfort from the fact that the three nations aren't really an axis; they have nothing like a formal alliance. (However, North Korea has exported versions of its Nodong missile to Iran and may have exchanged missile technology with Iraq.) And in a pinch, all three could justify their programs in terms that might not compel listeners to use the E word. Iran wants nukes (and has wanted them since the Shah was in power) partly because three of its neighbors--India, Russia, and Pakistan--have them. North Korea uses its weapons to blackmail the rest of the world into propping it up with food aid and energy. And who knows? Perhaps Saddam Hussein--we're being charitable here--wants weapons of mass destruction not for offensive purposes but to cow domestic rivals so that he can be assured of dying in his bed rather than swinging from a Baghdad lamppost.