Bush's 'evil' trio holds sway over US decade later

February 4, 2012 - 12:05 PM
Axis of Evil at 10

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, FEB. 5, 2012 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2002 photo from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency distributed by Korea News Service, students participate in a mass gymnastics show at Pyongyang Gymnasium in North Korea, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of leader Kim Jong Il. In the first State of the Union address after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush bunched Iran, Iraq and North Korea together as the West's most dangerous foe, and called it an "axis of evil." Ten years later America is still at war, and the three points on the "axis" are profoundly different. (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency, Korea News Service via AP Images)

It was the first State of the Union address after the 9/11 attacks, and America was leading an invasion of Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Fittingly, this is where President George W. Bush began on Jan. 29, 2002: "As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers."

Then, about halfway through the address, Bush started to sketch the perceived perils and coined a three-word phrase: "axis of evil" — Iran, Iraq and North Korea. "In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic."

It turned out to be advance billing for the bloodshed, brinksmanship and frustration that would dominate the Bush White House and be passed on to Barack Obama. Ten years later, America still is at war, and the three points on Bush's "axis" are profoundly different. North Korea has exploded two nuclear-test devices; Iran is alleged to harbor nuclear ambitions; and Iraq, which was to have been the democratic showcase of the Bush foreign policy, still is a shaky prospect bedeviled by factional violence.

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Back on Jan. 29, 2002, as Bush delivered that State of the Union address, Iran seemed from the West's perspective to be the least menacing point on the axis. Its president, Mohammad Khatami, was a moderate, hard-line voices were muted and there were hints of breakthrough cooperation in Afghanistan after the U.S. toppled the Taliban, which was hated by Tehran.

But the U.S. deeply opposes Iran's aid to Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian faction Hamas, and today, Iran's Islamic leaders and their U.S.-led opponents are in a 21st century version of Cold War showdowns.

U.S. and European sanctions are taking aim at Iran's critical oil exports as part of escalating economic pressures. Cyber warfare and assassinations are claimed by Iran to be part of an Israeli campaign to abort its nuclear effort. Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, the pathway for about one-fifth of the world's oil, and U.S. and European warships have responded with a show of muscle.

"We're much closer to moving from a cold conflict to a hot conflict, because Iran has moved forward with their nuclear program," Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian affairs expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an interview with National Public Radio for the 10th anniversary of Bush's speech. "But I would say that Iran truly is more isolated than it's ever been."

Iran has offered to resume talks with world powers, but looks highly unlikely to agree to any conditions that would halt uranium enrichment. The U.S. and its allies fear that enrichment will lead to weapons-grade material. Iran insists it seeks reactors only for energy and medical research.

"It's reached a stage where it's hard to see how this impasse could be broken," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a Syracuse University professor who follows Iranian affairs. "The pressures on Iran are definitely hurting them, but it also causes the leadership to push back even harder."

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In Iraq, Bush's 2002 speech was not broadcast live, but the next day Saddam Hussein's government was claiming America was massing troops on the borders and was about to invade. Fourteen months later a U.S.-led force poured into Iraq after another type of state-sponsored call to arms: Washington's claim that Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

No such arsenal was ever discovered, but other merciless forces were unleashed in the form of sectarian conflict between the Sunnis, who lost their privileged status bestowed by Saddam, and the majority Shiites, who had suffered relentless repression by his regime.

For years, the U.S. military was the besieged caretaker of a country on the brink of civil war. The fighting veered in many directions: Shiite militias targeting U.S. troops or running nighttime Sunni-hunting death squads; Sunni insurgents inspired by al-Qaida carrying out suicide bombings and other attacks against Shiites; Iranian-backed Shiite factions becoming so deadly proficient with roadside bombs that they became the chief killer of U.S. soldiers.

The withdrawal of the last American forces in December closed the door on more than seven years of combat, but left a whole new political landscape in which Iraq, a bulwark against Iranian power during Saddam's era, may become Iran's best Middle Eastern ally.

"Iraq," said Arizona Sen. John McCain, "is unraveling."

Many Iraqis would agree. Khalid Omer, a 34-year-old Sunni teacher in the northern Baghdad district of Azamiyah, traces it back to what he called Bush's "triple-wicked" address.

"It represents superficial and hollow American policies that started in Iraq and will end in Iraq," he said.

In a Shiite district in eastern Baghdad, Qais Kadhum, 42, lamented that Iraq has paid the highest cost among Bush's axis states.

"Iraq became the weakest country in the region, while North Korea and Iran became stronger," he said. "The policies of the 'axis of evil' devastated Iraq and enabled Iran and North Korea," he said.

Baghdad University international affairs professor Kadhum al-Muqdadi views Bush's speech as an early attempt to begin selling the idea of an Iraq invasion by linking it a perceived global threat.

"Bush put Iraq in with two other 'evil' nations, but his real aim was marketing for the invasion of Iraq," said al-Muqdadi. "He was just trying to pave the way."

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Bush's speech came less than two years after a landmark trip to North Korea by Madeleine Albright, President Bill Clinton's secretary of state. North Korea reacted to the "axis of evil" label by calling it "little short of declaring a war," and it went on to twice detonate nuclear devices and to test-fire missiles.

While the relationship with the U.S. remains tense, the death in December of Kim Jong Il, who led North Korea during the Bush administration, opened the way for his young, inexperienced son, Kim Jong Un. His government has recently suggested through state media that it remains open to suspending uranium enrichment in return for food aid.

While China is North Korea's major economic and political backer, relations with the U.S. are a high priority among officials in Pyongyang. North Korea's willingness to make a deal with Washington is seen as a crucial pointer to how the country will behave as it extends the Kim dynasty into a third generation.

All eyes are on Kim Jong Un to see how he consolidates power. There are fears that North Korea could seek to bolster his credentials and strengthen national unity by conducting a missile or nuclear test, or by picking a fight with South Korea.

The current nuclear crisis began in October 2002 when the Bush administration said North Korea admitted to a secret uranium program during U.S.-North Korean talks in Pyongyang. North Korea long rejected the uranium allegations, but in 2010 it unveiled an industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility.

South Korean analysts differ about the importance of Bush's now-famous phrase.

Jeung Young-tae of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul said it was part of Bush's "realistic North Korea policy" responding to North Korea's tactic of disavowing nuclear ambitions to get aid while covertly breaking its word.

"The Bush administration came to understand the true nature of North Korea," Jeung said.

Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University, said, however, that the "axis-of-evil" designation "considerably undermined" ties with North Korea,

"It was a turning point," Yoo said. "In the following 10 years, North Korea and the United States have failed to build mutual trust between them."

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Brian Murphy is an AP correspondent based in Dubai. Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Mazin Yahya in Baghdad; and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.