‘They must know something we don’t know‘ is usually the classic default assumption of the ill-informed about our rulers, whenever any government critic has raised questions about the wisdom of any new but outlandish foreign-policy objective. The experience of the George W Bush Administration of 2001-9 would prove to be a classic example of this lesson – one so classic that the Nobel Peace Prize committee would award the gong to his successor purely as a way of making a point, rather than to reward anything specific that Barack Obama had achieved in just eleven months in the White House.
The September 11th attacks in New York and Washington DC were certainly catalysts for the ensuing conflicts against Afghanistan and Iraq – grouped together under the bizarre moniker the War on Terror (prompting the comedian Andy Hamilton to predict that the Americans would ultimately lose such a war, since an abstract noun cannot surrender…) – but the truth was that these military operations had been long in the planning even before those hijacked planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The Caspian Sea area is one of the world’s last great oil basins, and both the US and Russia have long had designs on this part of Central Asia for precisely that reason. Cynicism about international politics being what it is, though, very few people will go with any world leader bold enough to declare ‘We’re going in for the oil!‘ so the policy planners and speechwriters in the White House clubbed together to try to sell the coming War, and they came up with a (literally) killer catchphrase in President Bush’s second State of the Union Address on 29 January 2002:
Our nation will continue to be steadfast and patient and persistent in the pursuit of two great objectives. First, we will shut down terrorist camps, disrupt terrorist plans, and bring terrorists to justice. And, second, we must prevent the terrorists and regimes who seek chemical, biological or nuclear weapons from threatening the United States and the world…
Some of these regimes have been pretty quiet since September 11th. But we know their true nature.
North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.
Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.
Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens — leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. This is a regime that agreed to international inspections — then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.
States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an Axis of Evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.
It was a fateful catchphrase – Axis Of Evil – designed to seize international attention. The problem with such a catchphrase was that it was founded on little that was factually true. Yes, terrorists had plotted against the United States, and a terrorist network had been responsible for flying planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 – but neither North Korea, nor Iran, nor Iraq had had anything to do with the atrocity. Yes, North Korea was arming with missiles and WMDs while starving its citizens (and still is). Yes, the then Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein had used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens. Yes, an unelected few repressed the Iranian people’s hope for freedom (and still do). But in terms of verifiable fact, that was about as far as “Dubya”‘s second State of the Union address was prepared to go. The ensuing war against Iraq would lead to no WMDs being discovered, and would show that actually the regime had nothing to hide from the civilized world – simply because the weapons inspectors, which included Republican politician and UN official Scott Ritter, had insisted all along that the WMDs to which the American president had constantly referred in the months before the invasion of March 2003 did not exist.
Furthermore, the three countries that supposedly made up Bush’s “Axis of Evil” had next to nothing in common: Iraq and Iran were deadly enemies, and no amount of anti-American feeling was ever going to do away with the hatred and bitterness festering between them in the aftermath of the 1980-88 Gulf War; and there was likewise no evidence of any co-ordination between either country and the hermetically-sealed Stalinist hell-hole that is North Korea. Even if there had been such an Axis between such radically diverse countries, the prospects of this alliance honestly doing serious damage to the interests of the world’s most powerful superpower belong in the realms of fantasy – and fantasy that could only have been dreamt up by excitable and ambitious speech- and policymakers. Fortunately, from the point of view of the warmongers in the Bush jnr Administration, such a speech- and policymaker was readily available in the form of a neoconservative thinker (and apologies for the obvious oxymoron there…) from Toronto, Canada called David Frum. It appears that he came up with the idea after reading about World War 2 and how FDR went to war with Germany and Italy after Pearl Harbor. More than a million completely avoidable deaths later, one can only wonder as to whether Frum felt that coining the phrase had been worth it.
Still, thank goodness the current team in the White House have a considerably much more conscientious and diligent approach to policymaking based on verifiable facts…