Bush's Reasons To Face Off Against "Axis Of Evil" Don't Match Facts

8 February 2002

By Stentor Danielson

Perhaps the most enduring phrase to come out of President Bush’s State of the Union speech last month was "axis of evil," a phrase he used in the continuing effort to make current American military action the moral equivalent of World War II. The "axis of evil" is composed of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, three nations that have gone from "rogue states," to "states of concern," to the enemies of civilization.

Bush gave two reasons for focusing on these three nations: September 11 and the universal values of freedom that America has a duty to bring to the people of the world. Neither quite matches up to the facts. Bush and other hawks in the administration seem more concerned with finding reasons to go after our traditional enemies.

The entire State of the Union address seemed calculated to play upon September 11 for support of unrelated policy. The tragedy we witnessed caused an understandable leap in support for retaliation against those responsible. But since that time, Bush has manipulated this public support for war to advance military agendas that have increasingly little to do with vengeance for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. The war on al-Qaida became the war on Islamic terror (since Bush showed little interest in, for example, the Irish Republican Army or the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka), which became the war on nations with the military capacity to hurt the U.S.

The fact is, there is no evidence that any of the members of the "axis of evil" had anything to do with al-Qaida. Osama bin Laden has said that he hates Saddam Hussein, who is one of the more secular leaders of the Islamic world. Indeed, among bin Laden’s gripes against the United States is our economic sanctions on Iraq, which he sees as helping Hussein oppress his people.

None of the members of the "axis of evil" had anything to do with the Taliban, either. The predominantly Shi’ite Iranian state actively opposed the Taliban, which practiced the rival Sunni sect of Islam. If we’re looking for supporters of the Taliban, we should start with our ally Pakistan, which was one of three nations that gave diplomatic recognition to Mullah Mohammed Omar’s government prior to September 11. A large and influential segment of the Pakistani population still sides with such extremists.

Bush justifies including the "axis of evil" under the umbrella of post-September 11 war by invoking these nations’ search for weapons of mass destruction. Action is necessary, he insists, to disarm these nations before they can even think of striking the United States. Meanwhile, our nuclear-weapon-enabled allies Pakistan and India are edging closer to war. Yet, instead of calling for intervention to dismantle these nations’ militaries, Bush has sent Secretary of State Colin Powell on diplomatic missions to calm the tensions over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Similar peaceful reconciliation was proceeding with Iran and North Korea prior to Bush’s belligerent address. South Korea staked its hopes for the future on reconciliation with the North and fears Bush’s declaration will undermine those efforts.

The strong reform movement in Iran, including President Mohammad Khatami, looked to U.S. friendship to help it overcome Ayatollah Ali Khameni and other hard-liners who still cling to veto power over the nation’s policy. Mohammad Mousavi, a political science professor at Tehran University, told Reuters "Of course conservatives [that is, Islamic hard-liners] now feel more powerful since their forecasts about the American government have come true."

Iran has been, on the whole, helpful to the United States in its efforts in Afghanistan. Iranian diplomats played a key role in reaching the accord that established Hamid Karzai’s interim Afghan government. Hawks cite a recent shipment of weapons from Iran to the Palestinian Authority as evidence that Iran has turned its back on this progress, ignoring the fact that Iranian support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas is nothing new. The process of change has been short-circuited by Bush’s assumption that the shipment represents a total change of heart for a nation still deeply divided about its relationship to the West.

The rhetoric of universal human rights is used by hawks in the administration to suggest that, rather than simply looking out for its own security, the United States is concerned about the plight of oppressed people in other countries. Bush talked in his State of the Union speech about "the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance." It’s similar to the way the Gulf War was ostensibly fought to liberate Kuwait, rather than to protect our Kuwaiti oil suppliers.

One key component of this logic is talk about the women of Afghanistan. It was well known before September 11 that the Taliban treated Afghan women exceptionally poorly. News coverage of the war was obsessed with the image of the downtrodden Afghan woman shedding her burqa once anti-Taliban forces took control.

This rhetoric about liberating oppressed women rings hollow when we look at the United States’ closest ally in the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia. Saudis subscribe to strict interpretations of Islamic law, requiring women to don concealing clothing in public, prohibiting them from driving and imposing other restrictions. Not only does the U.S. look the other way in the interest of using Saudi air bases against the axis of evil, but it is complicit in such rules. Women serving in the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia are required to follow a series of regulations to keep their conduct in line with Saudi custom, and have been for the duration of American presence in the country. Lt. Col. Martha McSally recently sued the Department of Defense on the grounds that the policy is discriminatory to women and non-Muslims.

Turkey, often cited as the model Islamic state, errs in the opposite direction. Its leaders are so paranoid about the threat of Muslim groups taking control that it bans many public displays of religion, such as the chadors that many Muslim women are proud to wear as a sign of their faith.

Fears of terrorism following September 11 and defending universal human values do not sufficiently account for Bush’s singling out of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. It seems much more likely that these three nations are the traditional enemies of the United States, and Bush is trying to piggyback action against them onto the wave of support he has enjoyed over the past five months.

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