The phrase axis of evil was first used by U.S. President George W. Bush in his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, less than five months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and often repeated throughout his presidency, to describe foreign governments that, during his administration, allegedly sponsored terrorism and sought weapons of mass destruction. The notion of such an axis was used to pinpoint these common enemies of the United States and rally the American populace in support of the War on Terror.
In his 2002 State of the Union Address, Bush called North Korea "A regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens." He also stated Iran "aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom." Bush gave the most criticism to Iraq, stating "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." Afterwards, Bush said, "States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." None of the terrorists involved in 9/11 were citizens of the three nations Bush cited..
The phrase was attributed to former Bush speechwriter David Frum, originally as the axis of hatred and then evil. Frum explained his rationale for creating the phrase axis of evil in his book The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush. Essentially, the story begins in late December 2001 when head speechwriter Michael Gerson gave Frum the assignment of articulating the case for dislodging the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in only a few sentences for the upcoming State of the Union address. Frum says he began by rereading President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "date which will live in infamy" speech given on December 8, 1941, after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. While Americans needed no convincing about going to war with Japan, Roosevelt saw the greater threat to the United States coming from Nazi Germany, and he had to make the case for fighting a two-ocean war.
Frum points in his book to a now often-overlooked sentence in Roosevelt's speech which reads in part, "...we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again." Frum interprets Roosevelt's oratory like this: "For FDR, Pearl Harbor was not only an attack—it was a warning of future and worse attacks from another, even more dangerous enemy." Japan, a country with one-tenth of America's industrial capacity, a dependence on imports for its food, and already engaged in a war with China, was extremely reckless to attack the United States, a recklessness "that made the Axis such a menace to world peace", Frum says. Saddam Hussein's two wars, against Iran and Kuwait, were just as reckless, Frum decided, and therefore presented the same threat to world peace.
In his book Frum relates that the more he compared the Axis powers of World War II to modern "terror states", the more similarities he saw. "The Axis powers disliked and distrusted one another", Frum writes. "Had the Axis somehow won the war, its members would quickly have turned on one another." Iran, Iraq, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah, despite quarreling among themselves, "all resented power of the West and Israel, and they all despised the humane values of democracy." There, Frum saw the connection: "Together, the terror states and the terror organizations formed an axis of hatred against the United States."
Frum tells that he then sent off a memo with the above arguments and also cited some of the atrocities perpetrated by the Iraqi government. He expected his words to be chopped apart and altered beyond recognition, as is the fate of much presidential speechwriting, but his words were ultimately read by Bush nearly verbatim, though Bush changed the term axis of hatred to axis of evil. North Korea was added to the list, he says, because it was attempting to develop nuclear weapons, had a history of reckless aggression, and "needed to feel a stronger hand".
Afterwards, Frum's wife disclosed his authorship to the public.
A decade before the 2002 State of the Union address, in August 1992, the Israeli-American political scientist Yossef Bodansky wrote a paper entitled "Tehran, Baghdad & Damascus: The New Axis Pact" while serving as the Director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the US House of Representatives. Although he did not explicitly apply the epithet evil to his New Axis, Bodansky's axis was otherwise very reminiscent of Frum's axis. Bodansky felt that this new Axis was a very dangerous development. The gist of Bodansky's argument was that Iran, Iraq and Syria had formed a "tripartite alliance" in the wake of the First Gulf War, and that this alliance posed an imminent threat that could only be dealt with by invading Iraq a second time and overthrowing Saddam Hussein.
On May 6, 2002, then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton gave a speech entitled "Beyond the Axis of Evil". In it he added three more nations to be grouped with the already mentioned rogue states: Cuba, Libya, and Syria. The criteria for inclusion in this grouping were: "state sponsors of terrorism that are pursuing or who have the potential to pursue weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or have the capability to do so in violation of their treaty obligations."
Iran and Iraq fought the long Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s under basically the same leadership as that which existed at the time of Bush's speech, leading some to believe that the linking of the nations under the same banner was misguided. Others argued that each of the three nations in the "axis of evil" had some special characteristics which were obscured by grouping them together. Anne Applebaum wrote about the debate over North Korea's inclusion in the group.
In the days after the 9/11 attacks, Ryan Crocker, the American Ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009 (then a senior State Department official), and other senior U.S. State Department officials flew to Geneva to meet secretly with representatives of the government of Iran. For several months, Crocker and his Iranian counterparts cooperated on capturing Al Qaeda operatives in the region and fighting the Taliban government in Afghanistan. These meetings stopped after the "Axis of Evil" speech hardened Iranian attitudes toward cooperating with the U.S.
In April 2006 the phrase axis of terror earned more publicity. Israel's UN Ambassador, Dan Gillerman, cautioned of a new axis of terror—Iran, Syria and the Hamas-run Palestinian government; Gillerman repeated the term before the UN over the crisis in Lebanon. Some three months later Israeli senior foreign ministry official Gideon Meir branded the alleged alliance an axis of terror and hate.
In 2006, Isaias Afewerki, the president of Eritrea, had declared in response to the deteriorating relations with the neighboring countries of Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen by accusing them of being an "Axis of Belligerence."
The former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, described the so-called New Latin Left as an "axis of good" which comprised Bolivia, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela but described "Washington and its allies" as an "axis of evil".
In 2008, The Economist featured an article about the "Axis of Diesel" in reference to a burgeoning alliance of Iran, Russia, and Venezuela. They cite the billions of dollars in arms sales to Venezuela and the construction of Iranian nuclear facilities as well as the rejection of added sanctions on Iran. They did conclude that the benefits of the arrangement were exaggerated, however.
In 2012, geo-strategist and author, William C. Martel, in a short essay for the publication, The Diplomat, wrote of an "Authoritarian Axis", comprising China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela. Following the death of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez in 2013, Martel removed Venezuela from the assigned list of countries, in his subsequent writings about the "axis". Martel's thesis drew criticism from several quarters, with the main arguments cited in opposition to his idea being the lack of cohesion and generally low levels of cooperation shown between the cited countries.
Several environmental non-governmental organizations, including Friends of the Earth International and Greenpeace, as well as the Green Party of Canada, have dubbed Australia, Canada and United States, the "Axis of Environmental Evil" because of their lack of support for international environmental agreements, particularly those related to climate change.
During a March 2018 interview with the Egyptian media, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman referred Iran, Turkey and Islamist organizations such as ISIL and the Muslim Brotherhood as the "triangle of evil", to describe their current policies in the Middle East. Those remarks were later dismissed by Iran, describing it as "childish" and said that Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen has "caused instability and extremism and stuck in a quagmire" in Yemen.
In October 2018, the economist Paul Krugman argued "[t]here's a new axis of evil: Russia, Saudi Arabia — and the United States", the three countries that declined to endorse the United Nation's latest climate study at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference.
Various related pun phrases include:
The term has also lent itself to various parodies, including the following:
British Comedian Bill Bailey also referred to the Axis of Evil in his Part Troll tour. He queried whether it was possible to assume a non-evil role within a terrorist organisation, possibly in the laundry or catering department. He then went on to pretend that he was the receptionist for the Axis of Evil. Imagining he was answering the phone, Bill Bailey says to the audience, "Hello, Axis of Evil. Oh no, they're all out at the moment. Oh, I don't know. Doing something evil I suppose". Placing the "caller" on hold, he then played a short jingle for the "Axis of Evil Pension Scheme".
In response to the problems Americans of Middle-Eastern descent have in the current climate, a group of comedians have banded together to form the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. The comedians, Ahmed Ahmed (from Egypt), Maz Jobrani (from Iran), and Aron Kader (whose father is Palestinian), have created a show which aired on Comedy Central. They have also included half-Palestinian, half-Italian Dean Obeidallah in some of their acts.
The group took the comedy tour around the Middle East (November–December 2007), performing in the UAE, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, and Lebanon to sell-out crowds.
In 2003 the Norwegian record label Kirkelig Kulturverksted published the CD Lullabies from the Axis of Evil containing 14 lullabies from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan and Cuba. Every lullaby is presented in its original form sung by women from these countries, and then a western version with interpretations in English.
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