When the Axis Was Truly Evil

President Bush’s widely publicized reference in his State of the Union address to an “axis of evil” has frightened and confused people throughout the world. To many, Bush’s phrase appears to be a trial balloon for a much bigger war in the name of fighting international terrorism. If that is true, Americans must examine his intentions very carefully.

The president’s contention that Iran, Iraq and North Korea constitute an “axis of evil” because they are “producing weapons of mass destruction” could just as easily be applied to Pakistan and Israel, both U.S. allies currently involved in very dangerous regional conflicts. At the moment, the possible use of nuclear weapons in the outbreak of a major war between Pakistan and India or in the escalating Palestinian-Israeli conflict seems to be a far more serious threat to international peace than Bush’s “axis of evil.”

The president’s comments have led to denunciations from the three nations he singled out and the largest anti-American demonstrations in Iran since the 1979-1980 hostage crisis. His remarks have also puzzled many NATO allies, who have keen memories of the war against the totalitarian Axis of World War II, the German-Japanese alliance that conquered and occupied most of Europe and much of eastern Asia in the early years of the war.

The question people through the world are  now asking is whether the president is issuing a legitimate warning to the world community or defining global enemies unilaterally and writing a blank check for the Pentagon.

A comparison between the Axis that the United States and its allies fought in World War II and this new “axis of evil” suggests that they are in no way comparable. The Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, initiated the Rome-Berlin alliance with the German Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, in 1936. They were responding to the attempts by antifascists to resist their 1936 military aggression in Spain. In September 1940, Japan joined the Axis, which now saw itself as the center of a new global power structure.

Proclaiming themselves “defenders of civilization,” the Axis powers sought to subordinate Britain, France and the United States, destroy the Soviet Union and “international Communism” and establish a Nazi-dominated “New Order” in Europe, based on doctrines of racial superiority, and a Japanese-dominated “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” On these militarist and racist principles, the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis savagely fought and lost World War II, the most devastating war in human history.

If President Bush’s “axis of evil” represented even a fraction of the global menace of the old Axis powers, he would have a good point. But the huge dissimilarities between the Axis and the “axis of evil” argue strongly against any serious comparison. Iran, Iraq and North Korea have no common goals and are neither great powers nor allies.

Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war in the 1980s and have very different, albeit similarly oppressive, governments. Iran is a so-called “Islamic republic” with limited political rights, while Iraq remains a secular nationalist-oriented dictatorship of the Baath party and its leader, Saddam Hussein. While both nations have been associated with international terrorist groups, they remain enemies, linked only by their opposition to the United States.

Rather than being an ally of either Iran or Iraq, North Korea has no apparent ties of any kind with them and has not been involved in conflicts with the United States beyond the Korean peninsula. Bush’s statements only serve to undermine the continuing North-South Korean rapprochement by increasing tensions providing a rationale for continuing and even expanding the U.S. military role on the peninsula. He also pushes Iran and Iraq closer together, deepening regional conflict and providing a rationale for an expanding U.S. military involvement.

In effect, President Bush’s statement opens the door for the United States to fight what historian Charles Beard in the 1930s called “perpetual wars for perpetual peace,” a policy that would be a boon to the military-industrial complex but a detriment in international relations — a unilateralism that alienates allies and unites enemies.

Such rhetoric may also create a “crying wolf” effect. American citizens, bombarded by tabloid headline phrases like “axis of evil,” may lose the ability to distinguish between serious dangers and straw enemies in foreign affairs.

Norman Markowitz is a member of the history faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a writer for the History News Service.

February, 2002