What’s going on here?
In last week’s State of the Union address, President Bush solemnly declared:
States like [North Korea, Iran and Iraq] and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. 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.
Truer words were never spoken. And yet, within hours of their utterance from the most bully pulpit in the land, they were being qualified and "spun" — if not effectively retracted altogether.
Not Just State
Interestingly, it was not just the "usual suspects" at the State Department trying to walk the cat back. The Foggy Bottom crowd is notorious for its determination to pursue a diplomatic agenda of its choosing without regard for the preferences — or even direction — of the elected President.
For example, early in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had to overcome intense opposition from the Department when he wanted to describe the Soviet Union as "the Evil Empire" — a clear rhetorical progenitor to Mr. Bush’s "axis of evil." In 1987, he actually had to overrule State’s objections on four successive drafts of the speech he was going to give in Berlin to ensure that his equally famous call for President Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" actually got said.
On those occasions when the President does say something with which the State Department does not agree, it has proven adept at reinterpreting his words to suit its purposes. But when George W. Bush put Iran, Iraq and North Korea in the cross-hairs before a joint session of Congress to a standing ovation and endorsements from opposition leaders like Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Dick Gephardt, the message seemed clear. "Read my lips. The pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and sponsorship of terrorism by these three evil regimes makes them enemies of the United States and we will proceed accordingly." So clear was the message that Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly felt moved the next morning to warn his transparently displeased senior staff, "No spinning."
‘What the President Meant to Say’
Now, the President’s remarks did not signal imminent hostilities with any of these nations. It did, however, put them — and the world more generally — on notice: Iraq, North Korea and Iran are pariah states. Their conduct puts them squarely in the "against us" camp in the war on terrorism. Efforts to consider or to treat them as other than hostile powers is not only unwise; it is unfriendly to the United States.
Unfortunately, it appears that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, White House Press spokesman Ari Fleischer and even the President himself decided to backpedal in the wake of the State of the Union address. Rice is said to have begun calling reporters that night, apparently to allay absurd speculation that the Administration was about to open three new military fronts in the war on terrorism. At his press conference the next day, Fleischer did so publicly. And by Friday, Mr. Bush was putting out the word that at least with respect to North Korea, "dialogue" — implying the continued legitimacy of the regime in Pyongyang — was still an option.
If such "clarifications" were supposed to have allayed predictable criticism from allies who have no problem trading with or otherwise propping up rogue state regimes, they did not have the desired effect. Two international forums over the weekend, one in Munich and the other in New York, served as petri dishes for festering anti-Americanism which tends to flourishes most when foreign governments sense Washington can be talked out of an announced policy direction. Participating U.S. legislators — ever attuned to political wind shifts — are scurrying to distance themselves from the "axis of evil" line. It will probably take only a few hours for the previously supportive Tom Daschle to revert to form, for starters disavowing his ephemeral support for regime change in Iraq on the grounds that it would be an indefensible exercise in "unilateralism."
What’s at Stake
It would be a disaster were President Bush to permit his courageous, clarion and much-needed characterization of the state of the emerging threats to our Union now to be whittled away to the point where it is seen as little more than a bit of regrettable rhetorical hyperbole. Make no mistake: Should that happen, our enemies will be emboldened to pursue dangerous weapons and terrorist agendas. Their as-yet-unindicted co-conspirators — states like Cuba, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Venezuela — will no longer worry that misbehavior in these and other areas may put them too squarely on the wrong side of history.
For their part, Russia and China — whose patronage and technical assistance makes all these "clients" the rogue states they are — will be encouraged to redouble their support, and to interpose all the more forcefully objections to U.S. efforts to change the regimes with whom they do business. And Mr. Bush must expect that his critics at home and abroad will gleefully pile on.
The Bottom Line
In short, if President Bush didn’t mean to denounce the "axis of evil," he would have been better off not to say it. If, on the other hand, he meant to speak truth to the growing power of such evil in the world, he better make sure that everyone reads his lips.