The Enduring Lessons of the ‘Axis of Evil’ Speech
Twenty years ago today, President George W. Bush delivered a State of the Union address that would instantly become one of the most bitterly controversial in U.S. history. At its core were short indictments of the aggressions and human-rights abuses of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.
Then the kicker:
“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”
I was part of the speechwriting team that drafted those words. We’d lived together through the trauma of 9/11: not only that horrific day itself, but the nerve-jangling aftermath. The trauma redirected the perceptions and the judgment of national leaders. Bush had won office in a period of seeming peace and prosperity. Now it felt as if death could strike anywhere, anytime. Would suicide bombers attack movie theaters? Would teams of terrorist gunmen open fire in shopping malls? It all seemed horribly possible.
Beginning September 18, packets of anthrax were received at political and media offices in Washington and across the country. At least 22 people were infected; five of them died. On November 12, 2001, a passenger jetliner leaving John F. Kennedy International Airport crashed into the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, killing all 260 people aboard and five on the ground. The crash proved accidental, but initially we had to wonder: Had al-Qaeda landed a second strike inside the United States? About that time, I doubled the life insurance I carried to protect my young family.
Before 9/11, terror threats had been an issue for specialists inside the national-security apparatus. Now they physically reshaped the government. The Eisenhower Executive Office Building occupies a block in Washington bounded on the west by 17th Street, a busy roadway. For fear of car bombs, all the offices on that side of the building were emptied. E Street, to the south, was closed to traffic, and before authorized cars could enter, they were elaborately searched: trunks popped open for inspection, a Secret Service mirror run under the chassis, a dog sniffing for explosives.
The fervid atmosphere in the country biased citizens and officials alike to overheat rhetoric and overestimate dangers. I succumbed to that temptation myself; more senior people in government were no more resistant.
Meanwhile, the news from the combat zone in the war provoked by the terror attacks was disappointing and frustrating. In December 2001, U.S. forces and Afghan allies had cornered Osama bin Laden in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Bin Laden completed a last will and testament dated December 14, 2001. Yet somehow bin Laden escaped. The year ended with the Taliban overthrown, U.S. or coalition forces in control of all of Afghanistan’s cities, but the prime mission for which the United States fought the Taliban unfulfilled.
America had suffered much. It feared worse ahead.
The 2002 State of the Union address responded to those fears. It tried to specify where the next danger might come from—and to offer plans to guard against it. Bush’s answers would instantly come under ferocious criticism. The criticism reverberates to this day. And yet four core ideas in the speech have survived as enduring foundations of U.S. security policy.
The speech’s first key idea was that even after 9/11, the most important threats to the United States still came from hostile states. Terrorists could pose a first-degree threat to the U.S. only if supported by a government. The 2002 State of the Union address is known as the “axis of evil” speech. But those were not its most important words. The most important words of the speech were: “States like these, and their terrorist allies …”
In 2002, that seemed a radical thing to say. September 11 had supposedly changed everything. Violence between states was so 20th century, and to worry about it was to expose oneself as backwards-looking, out-of-date.
What was backward then is forward now. The Islamic State terror group overtook al-Qaeda as a security threat precisely because it occupied territory in Syria and Iraq and formed a state of its own. By 2019, that state had been destroyed, and although ISIS the concept and murder franchise still exists, it has dropped far down the list of U.S.-government security concerns.
A second idea was that these hostile states and their terrorist allies presented an overlapping threat. Again, this idea was much scoffed at in 2002. But in the years since, the commonalities have come to light: a Syrian nuclear reactor, ultimately destroyed by Israel, that was built with help from North Korea and, according to a defector, money from Iran; Shiite Iran funding Sunni Hamas; Iranian–North Korean nuclear cooperation; North Korea providing Syria with supplies that could be used to manufacture poison gas, as reported by United Nations experts. These episodes of cooperation were not acts of friendship or alliance. They were opportunistic deals among states and groups joined by their shared hostility toward the United States. The national-security threats facing America were not simply one damn thing after another; just as the United States tried to build collective security for its friends, so too could U.S. adversaries work together to build collective insecurity.
Bush’s third big idea in the 2002 speech was to downgrade the importance of Afghanistan to the United States. A major question after 9/11 was how deeply the U.S. and allies should commit to Afghanistan. In many eyes, Afghanistan was “the good war,” the security project that should have first claim to U.S. resources. Against that view, Bush treated Afghanistan as one theater in a war on terror that would probably be decided elsewhere. Any large U.S. force in Afghanistan would have to be supplied either by road from Pakistan or by rail through Russia or through Russian-influenced Central Asian republics. Building a stable replacement government would depend on Afghan elites with agendas of their own, agendas that included massive self-enrichment. The deeper the U.S. commitment, the more expensive the ultimate U.S. failure would be. It would take almost 20 years before President Joe Biden would agree that the time had come to call it quits in Afghanistan. By then, the former good war looked more like the most hopeless of all the post-9/11 conflicts.
The fourth core idea in the speech was a determination to regard terrorism as a tool of power. Previously, some policy makers had an instinct to treat terrorism as an almost impersonal result of huge and abstract social problems. Compress enough poverty, grievance, and despair together, and terrorism would result. By this light, terrorism becomes almost a predictable consequence of social conditions, an involuntary, even mechanical, response, like an electric shock or the collapse of a bridge. In this view, the terrorist or terror agent is barely an agent of history at all. The political choices have been made by others, notably the terrorist’s victims and targets. Bush’s speech, by contrast, presented terrorism instead as a strategic choice that could be accepted or refused. “My hope is that all nations will heed our call and eliminate the terrorist parasites who threaten their countries and our own.” He argued that American action could alter the strategic calculus that enabled terrorism. “Some governments will be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will.”
Almost from the day Bush delivered the speech, his critics have blamed him for creating the problems the speech attempted to describe. Iran would have been friendly if Bush had not called it names! Yes, Iran had clashed with the Taliban in the 1990s, and was certainly glad to see the United States drawn into a fight against them. But it didn’t want to see the U.S. win that fight, and establish any kind of stable pro-Western regime next door to Iran. Iran was never going to stop backing its main terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. Iran began building a new enrichment site in the city of Natanz, north of Isfahan, in 2001, before the “axis of evil” speech. The site was revealed to the world by an Iranian resistance group in August 2002, just after the speech.
Iran’s support for terrorism proceeded nonstop too. It might not much care for al-Qaeda. But Iran was more than willing to outfit other Sunni terrorist groups, and to offer supervised sanctuary to bin Laden relatives. In January 2002, a ship carrying 50 tons of arms and explosives was intercepted at sea by Israel, which accused Iran of sending them to Gaza. Hezbollah was present and operating inside the United States, according to testimony to Congress by the FBI in February 2002.
Bush’s speech is now remembered as a major milestone on the path to war in Iraq. But in January 2002, the president had not yet declared a decision to topple Saddam Hussein. Even now, it’s still not clear to me when Bush made that decision. From the fall of 2001 through the spring of 2002, war in Iraq was always discussed as a possibility, a hypothetical. That’s how the speechwriting team got the assignment that led to the State of the Union address: If the president wanted to talk about Iraq, what might he say?
The journalist Robert Draper painstakingly reconstructed the timeline of the decision to invade Iraq in his 2020 book, To Start a War. Draper’s reporting depicts Bush as deeply hostile to Saddam Hussein from the start, but uncommitted to any single policy against the Iraqi dictator until late into the summer of 2002. In an April 5, 2002, interview with Trevor McDonald of Britain’s ITV, Bush said, “I’ve made up my mind that Saddam needs to go.” That very evening, Bush had dinner with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and told him that he had not yet decided when or how Saddam would be made to go.
Yet well before the summer of 2002, the preparation for war had acquired a momentum of its own. The previous February, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley organized a series of meetings to study the issues that might arise from an Iraq war. Hadley himself was not at all an ardent advocate of war against Iraq. But by some fateful impetus, the attempt to think through the war before it started only accelerated the decision it was meant to ponder. “By institutionalizing such discussions, Hadley had … created bureaucratic locomotion for a policy that had yet to be debated, and in fact never would be,” Draper observed.
By the end of the summer of 2002, the moment of decision—once assigned to an unspecific future—had somehow shifted into the unrecorded past. In September 2002, Bush addressed the UN and presented the Iraqi regime with a sequence of ultimatums that closed almost all his own exits. Yet he still had no real plan for what would happen if Iraq refused the ultimatum. The Pentagon wrote a deployment plan to get Americans into Baghdad. Nobody inside the administration had clear responsibility for planning for the day after the Americans arrived.
The January 2002 State of the Union speech had cited Iraq as only one danger among many. But over the months ahead, those other dangers would be displaced by the singular focus on Iraq. North Korea would stage a first nuclear test in 2006, then a second and more successful test in 2009. Iran too was closing in on a bomb around that time, a threat that the Obama administration tried to negotiate away but that haunts U.S. policy to this day.
The list of threats that Bush itemized 20 years ago was not imaginary. If anything, the ranks of hostile anti-U.S. regimes have multiplied since 2002. Back then, Vladimir Putin’s Russia sometimes cooperated with the United States on important strategic issues, including the war in Afghanistan. China was accepting major economic reforms to qualify for entry into the World Trade Organization. Neither regime was liberal toward its people or friendly to the West. But 20 years ago, optimists could reasonably hope that Russia and China might soon evolve in better directions. Those hopes have long ago been disappointed. Both regimes turned to the worse, and to each other.
Putin’s invasion plans for Ukraine offer China a “new world order” made safe for autocrats. As Putin threatens Ukraine, Chinese warplanes menace Taiwan. Earlier this month, Putin welcomed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Moscow. Raisi is an outspoken advocate of Iranian-Russian cooperation against the United States. Last week, China, Iran, and Russia held joint naval drills in the northern Indian Ocean. Maybe axis of evil is too melodramatic a phrase for our polarized and disillusioned era. But we need words to describe when the bad guys cooperate against the United States and its democratic allies.
Like the Vietnam War, the Iraq War casts a long shadow. It did not deliver the results promised, for Iraq or the United States. Perhaps even without U.S. intervention, Iraq would have collapsed into civil war, as Syria did. That cannot be answered. But there is still wisdom to be gained from the post 9/11 moment. President Bush’s 2002 warnings contain insights that can be repurposed for a changed world.