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'Axis of evil' comment proves more powerful than expected

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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By SARA FRITZ, Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 28, 2003

WASHINGTON -- This is the story of a nice little turn-of-phrase that grew into an international crisis.

It began a year ago when President Bush, in his last State of the Union speech, branded Iran, Iraq and North Korea the "axis of evil."

Axis of evil was a stunning term that seemed to be bursting with significance. But what did it mean? Nobody could say for certain at the time why Bush had decided to identify these three countries as the axis of evil or what punishment was being prepared for them.

We now learn from David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, that he thought up the phrase "axis of hatred" -- later changed to axis of evil to be consistent with Bush's preference for the word "evil" -- because Frum wanted a nice rhetorical flourish in the president's State of the Union speech. When Frum offered the phrase to Bush in a memo, however, it referred only to Iraq.

Then while last year's State of the Union speech was being written and revised by Bush and his aides, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice suggested Iran should be considered part of the axis of evil. So Iran was added to the speech.

"The Iranian regime had willfully flunked the test that Bush had set in his speeches to the Congress and the United Nations," Frum recalled in his recently published book, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush. "It harbored terrorists. It had revealed itself as a flagrantly hostile regime. Four years of attempted conciliation of the Iranian regime had abjectly failed."

Then, just a few days before Bush was scheduled to deliver the speech, somebody in the White House proposed adding North Korea.

"North Korea was added to the axis last," Frum wrote. "It was attempting to develop nuclear weapons, it had a history of reckless aggression, and it too had been cosseted by the United States in the recent past and needed to feel a stronger hand."

Thus was the centerpiece of Bush's foreign policy developed -- not by diplomats meeting at the State Department or by members of the National Security Council schooled in the nuances of world affairs, but by a small group of speechwriters with a flair for a dramatic turn of phrase.

History tells us this is how policy is sometimes made in the White House. Every president defines his policies in the process of writing speeches and issuing press releases. The president's most important decisions are not clear until he decides how to explain them to the world.

Nevertheless, the language is not supposed to drive the policy, as it did in this case.

In Pyongyang, North Korea's Kim Jong Il apparently did not see "axis of evil" as just a nice turn of phrase.

Don Oberdorfer, author of The Two Koreas, says North Korea started manufacturing plutonium in response to what it saw as a serious threat in Bush's speech.

"Those in authority in the military in North Korea persuaded their leadership that the only way they could secure their security in light of the hostility of the United States and what was going on across the world in Iraq was to go for nuclear weapons," Oberdorfer said.

For a while, Bush, whose attention was focused strictly on Iraq, tried to ignore the action that his words had precipitated in North Korea.

"We didn't want to be distracted, frankly, from the fact that we were just mounting the pressure to get (an agreement to disarm) either through the U.N. or through force in Iraq, and having a new crisis on the horizon was not what we were looking for," says Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution. "So we just decided not to declare a crisis in the hope that it would therefore go away.

"The problem is, of course, that it did not go away. The North Koreans quite tactfully and masterfully escalated, as one would have expected, drawing the United States into a crisis, and basically showing that the policy the administration was pursuing had serious problems."

Bush should have known that a powerful phrase like "axis of evil" uttered in a major speech by the president of the United States would send a message around the world. But it seems he might have said those words without being fully committed to their meaning.

The same thing happened to his father, the first President Bush. When he said "read my lips, no new taxes," voters thought he meant it. Therefore, they were disappointed when Bush agreed to a tax increase to balance the budget.

Our current president seems to delight in using muscular words with a moral punch. It's likely that tonight's State of the Union speech will contain similar language. But White House insiders say this speech was written with a keener understanding that a president must mean what he says.

-- Sara Fritz can be reached by e-mail at or by telephone at (202) 463-0576.

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