It’s nearly a decade since President Bush first used the term Axis of Evil to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea. So widely reported, it provoked a flurry of other axes. A couple of months later, US diplomat, John Bolton tagged on Libya, Syria and Cuba to the mix in his “Beyond the Axis of Evil” speech. It took a few more years for Condoleezza Rice to further embellish the list with her own self styled Outposts of Tyranny; identifying Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Iran, North Korea and Mynmar as culprits.
Tyranny and evil are perhaps not the most sophisticated diplomatic language. I couldn’t help wondering how these terrible countries had faired in US relations over the past decade, and where the rhetoric of “evil” has lead us.
Iraq was missing from Condoleezza’s 2005 list. As Bush said, “some governments will be timid in the face of tyranny. If they do not act, America will” – he was true to his word on Iraq, although of course no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq, perhaps undermining the whole axis thing.
Perhaps because of Iraq, Iran was never really tackled in the same way as was threatened in the speech (sharp eyed commentators may identify a catalogue of other reasons). The US still have a trade embargo on Iran (since 1995) and have had no real diplomatic relations for 30 years (although Iran does have an office in the Pakistani Embassy in Washington). At the beginning of his presidency Obama tried to reach out the Iranian people by appealing directly to them for a new beginning, but several years on, and the Americans and many other nations still have concerns about nuclear development (promulgated by Wikileaks – who themselves have been called evil and are the target of US "aggressive steps"). Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Clinton did however label Iran “awful” in a speech about internet freedoms and allegations that they have been helping Syria (who I will get on to in a minute) haven’t helped.
Like Iran, the US has no diplomatic relations with North Korea. They have been accused of forging US bank notes and their nuclear development and testing continues to concern more than just the USA. There have been glimmers of hope – four years ago the US navy rescued a group of North Korean sailors from Somali pirates and two years ago Clinton (Bill this time) negotiated the release of two American journalists. On a more macro level, in 2009 North Korea was removed from the “Sponsors of State Terrorism” list (yes another list for another time). Extensive Googling has not revealed a single mention of North Korea as evil or awful, however when examining US-North Korean relations, I cannot help but think of a masterful piece of cultural diplomacy – one of my favourite films – Team America.
Libya, Syria and Cuba
America and the world appeared to tolerate Qadhafi as a naughty dictator until very recently, when he swiftly became a “tyrant” (although missing from Condoleezza’s list of them). Obama has recently called the situation in Libya “fluid”. Syria, is a bit clearer – their revolution is not quite as advanced as Libya’s at the time of writing and although there was an omission of the “e” word in Obama’s recent statement, he did mention the “brutality” of the Syrian regime no less than four times (a former speech-writer winces). The BBC has provided a wonderful summary of US-Cuban relations for me – culminating in a visit from a ballet theatre – the cutting edge of cultural diplomacy. The US State Department give a rather sanitised version of their relationship with Cuba, no mention of the word “evil” at all, and in an interview with Clinton last year she appeared simply “very sad” at the state of their relations.
Not forgetting Belarus, Zimbabwe and Myanmar
Lastly I turn to Condolleeza’s remaining Outposts of Tyranny: Zimbabwe: Belarus; and Myanmar all labeled “fear societies” by her. Zimbabwe you would think would be easy – years later, the internet is still full of commentators suggesting that Mugabe is “evil” and any hopes the US held in the Copenhagen Statement have slid away. Earlier this year, the publishing of a Human Rights Report on Zimbabwe on State Department’s website sends a clear message about how the US feels, without “actually saying it”. But Belarus? The US still seems to have beef about it being undemocratic…hesitant about it’s links to Syria and it openly supports anti-Lushenko organisations. But evil? All Clinton said a few months ago in Lithuania was that we should show solidarity with those in the streets of Belarus and Libya. The same goes for Myanmar (which both Clinton and Condoleezza refer to as Burma) – after holding several meetings in recent years, the rhetoric on the country is all about “supporting a unified, peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Burma that respects the human rights of its citizens”. Not a tyrant or a scent of evil in the air.
It seems there is a US foreign policy preference for slightly more subtle diplomatic language. (Although Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2009 ironically contained threats of physical violence AND uses the “e” word). So I suggest some adjectives based on the above for the original Axis of Evil: Iraq = no longer evil (and perhaps never really was); Iran = status changed from “evil” to “awful”; North Korea = erm…”so ronery”? It’s worth mentioning an update on John Bolton’s evil list (even if he does work for Fox News now): Libya = fluid; Syria = brutal; Cuba = sad. And finally a new take on Condi’s adage: Zimbabwe = everyone else says he’s evil; and Belarus/ Myanmar = we support others who say they are evil.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
Of course there are many more candidates for evil. Afghanistan wasn’t on Bush’s 2002 list, perhaps because three months earlier he had already bombed the country and had dispossessed the Taliban regime. But since he frequently referred to the Taliban as “evil-doers”; given that the US is now “talking to the Taliban” and planning on leaving the place, I think we can safely say, it is NOT evil.
Pakistan was not on the list, and the mention of Pakistan in Bush’s speech as on of the “many nations acting forcefully” was met with applause. And the US have been at pains to express their “special relationship” with Pakistan since, whilst at the same time bombing the baddies in its territories. There was one Pakistani who dared to refer to the USA as the “Axis of Evil”. It was retired army General, Hamid Gul – but his statement was undermined by the fact that perhaps you need three countries to make up an axis. I guess “outpost” may not have had the same effect.
If you have got this far in the article, well done. Perhaps you could help me with a little research? I have an interest in perceptions of places (especially how they are presented in the media). If you have a spare five minutes please click through to my “Axis of Evil” questionnaire. I am hoping to turn it into an art piece – perhaps even write about the results here. I hope you are comforted that such undiplomatic language can allow artists and writers to embellish “evil” for themselves. Christine Fair’s excellent political cook-book Cuisines of The Axis of Evil and the Axis of Evil comedy tour, two cases in point.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.
Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and international relations. Her main research interests are in the perception of places and people as presented in the media. Her book A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011.
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.