If and when George W. Bush takes the United States to war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, he will mark the initial testing of an unprecedented rationale, the doctrine of preemptive war, to prevent--we are told--the use by Hussein of "weapons of mass destruction" against the West. This new canon, a direct outgrowth of elite American rage against the terrorists who leveled the World Trade Centre and punctured the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, provides Mr. Bush a means to transfer official umbrage from al Qaeda and the elusive (perhaps dead) Osama bin Laden to other powers deemed problematic by the Americans.
The phrase "axis of evil", was the ironic gift of the former Bush speechwriter, the Canadian David Frum. The phrase provided a facile strategy to take the intellectual battle from the plains and mountains of Afghanistan, which the U.S. bombed with insensate intensity in the aftermath of 9/11, anywhere else in the world it chooses. The only test, we now know, is the putative danger a "rogue" state or states pose to American national security--which, unfortunately, now includes Canadian national security as well. For like it or not, we are now part of the successor to the British empire, a force on the Potomac run by a Texan whose appreciation of nuance in foreign policy angry at the turn of events.
The "axis of evil," quickly encompassed Iraq and North Korea. Bush badly needed a slogan (a verbal logo in an age of logos ad nauseam) to get the American people on side, to support a policy that would--in historian Charles A. Beard's warning (echoed by Gore Vidal in his recent book)--threaten perpetual war for perpetual peace. Hence what better way to marshal domestic opinion than to tap into the image of the heinous adversaries of the Second World War (America's last "good" war)--Benito Mussolini and his Italian fascists, Japan and its militarists, but especially Adolf Hitler and his Nazis. Here--we were told--was evil incarnate that had to be stopped. As all schoolgirls know, in September 1940 those countries signed the so-called "Axis Pact", which ostensibly provided that should the U.S. make war on any of them, the other two would immediately retaliate.
That war came out as well as any war can, with the Axis charred beyond recognition (they would soon rise from the ashes to become bosom allies) Shortly thereafter we focused on the second of the two words in the phrase, axis of evil. Now we faced a different adversary, our erstwhile wartime ally, the Soviet Union. Like the Nazis, the communists were really bad. We experienced a cold war warmup of this totalitarian amorality during the duration of the Nazi-Soviet (August 1939-June 1941). During this period Americans and Canadians at all levels cross-referenced "red fascists," "brown bolshevists," and "commu-nazis," seeing no difference between Hitler and Joe Stalin, between Nazism and communism. The connection did much to underwrite the intellectual history of fifty years of cold war between the Republic and its adversary.
So here we are again, watching arguably the greatest intellectual lightweight in the White House since Warren Harding, having his way with history, engaging in what Voltaire deemed "the tricks the living play on the dead." Bush's use of the phrase "axis of evil" is problematic in several respects. Although it may play well in Peoria, it ignores American complicity in the unfolding Middle Eastern tragedy--including Washington’s blind support for Israeli state terror against Palestinians (with the politicized fallout now hitting home at Concordia University in Montreal and at Queen's), the West's insatiable thirst/need for oil, and the ways in which American popular culture enrage people who detest Western consumer values. To note tensions between Jihad and McWorld, or burqa and Victoria’s Secret, would mark a step in the right analytical direction.
But the Bush administration, with its hypercapitalist assumptions, chooses to find a direct line between the totalitarian leaders of the 1940s with Saddam Hussein, and between the threat of militant Islam and previous pernicious ideologies. Muslims are even better than communists, for they are --like the benighted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century--The president chooses not to bring out the nuances--including billions in American support for Hussein in the 1980s against the Ayatollahs in Iran, and for Osama in his battle to free Afghanistan from Soviet rule. Remember the Olympics in 1980? We did not go--because Moscow had invaded Afghanistan.
And in his undertaking, George W. Bush stands in a long line of conspiracy theorists who warned of dire threats to the Republic, stretching from High Federalists railing against Jeffersonian Jacobins in the 1790s, Protestant militant warnings in the 1830s-1850s about the machinations of the Pope and his minions, especially Irish-Catholic immigrants, through warnings about anarchists, socialists, and--of course--the Jews.
For the one word that dominated Western security discourse on Moscow's apparently unquenchable appetite for more territory was...EVIL. We were good, and the Soviets were bad--this simple binary underlay presidential doctrines, secret National Security Council papers and plans, and a national security state exhibiting excessive insecurity at anything unorthodox or progressive (i.e., that did not embrace anticommunism). It even reached into the bathroom, when Scot Towels asked, rhetorically, "Is your bathroom breeding Bolsheviks?"
Now it is one man, and the Saudi anti-western variant of Islam, a multifaceted religion, that bedevil the United States. Hussein connects with Hitler and Stalin in the president's mind. Radical Islamic Fundamentalism, meanwhile, incorporates both a dangerous idea (like communism), and swarthy men who evoke images of wild-eyed anarchist radicals at the turn of the 20th century.
These simplifications may yet play well in Peoria, even in Yarker. But given dwindling support in North America for the military project, as well as abhorrence abroad at Washington's unilateral hubris (what else could bring France and Germany together?), one can only wonder at the undertaking. What will happen if body bags begin to be shipped back to American shores? What sort of further instability will result in a region defined by instability? How can the United States even consider itself equipped to rebuild Iraq--after Hussein goes? And, what of the oil market, that black gold that so defines our lives?
Oh, yes, given the president's classification of North Korea as a rogue state, part of the axis of evil, should one be surprised at that country's choice to back out of an agreement on nuclear arms that rendered it defenseless against American weapons. Perhaps the balance of terror--another cold war import--may work. Perhaps it will not. Goodness knows, we are clearly in a position to destroy ourselves at the outset of the new millennium.
on, and in American history, They were identifiable states, while terrorism was and is more style and tactic, similar to the stealth of teenage graffiti artists who strike without warning and who (like the Kingston break-and-enter crowd) may be stopped only by ground-level intelligence gathering). The U.S. has not been very good at this in recent years, and apparently--after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989--felt that history had ended and the globalized future was American. Free markets and NAFTA would rule, bringing prosperity and happiness to all, no matter the venue.
(Afghanistan was about as responsible for the mad bombers of 9/11 as Florida)