Axis of stupidity

Bush's black-and-white rhetoric fails to grasp the complexity of the world. It doesn't even reveal the truth about the darkness of Iraq.

By David Talbot
Published February 14, 2002 8:03PM (EST)

President Bush has enthusiastically reintroduced the word "evil" to our political language. Conservatives hail this as a return to American bedrock values, dropping all the diplomatic finesse and calling a spade a spade. And in the days after Sept. 11, as I pondered the diabolical deliberation that went into turning twin towers full of humanity into giant fireballs, I found his rhetoric bracing as well. But months later -- by the time White House speechwriter David Frum came up with his "axis of evil" formulation for the Jan. 29 State of the Union speech, which Bush happily embraced as its emotional centerpiece -- I had come to think of Bush's rhetoric as part of the problem instead of the solution.

Bush utters the world "evil" the way a child does when it first dawns on him that there is darkness and danger in the world, and only his goodness and courage stands in its way. His axis-of-evil war cry, of course, was an attempt at Rooseveltian grandeur -- but because it mangles geopolitical reality (unlike the enemies FDR faced, there is no alliance between Iraq, Iran and North Korea), it simply confuses the American public and underlines what a dismal imitation of a great president our current leader is. It reminds us that this is a man who entered the 2000 presidential race in midlife with the barest, most homespun grasp of the world beyond America's borders, and after a year of Condi Rice tutorials and on-the-job training, is just a step away from calling Greeks "Grecians."

The fact that Bush and Frum -- a conservative intellectual who should know better -- were not widely ridiculed for this addled terminology is one more depressing comment on our slack-jawed media and political opposition. One of the strangest responses to Bush's rhetoric came in Wednesday's New York Times, from the normally sound-minded columnist Thomas Friedman, who while thoroughly rejecting the intellectual merits of the axis-of-evil worldview, nonetheless embraced its wacky spirit because it's necessary to be "as crazy as some of our enemies." And Al Gore, suddenly back from the Land of Nod, typically played it both ways in a New York speech on Tuesday, praising Bush for zeroing in on the odd trio of evil, but then covering his liberal base by deploring that other dark triangle, poverty, disease and oppression. It's time to stop all this dancing around and call Bush's speech what it is: a flight of idiocy.

Did the president miss the briefing on the history of Iraq-Iran relations, the one that pointed out that the two countries are mortal enemies, one a Shiite theocracy riven by democratic yearnings, the other a Sunni-led and thoroughly secular Stalinist dictatorship, and that they bled each other nearly dry in one of the goriest wars of the 20th century? And how did starving and benighted North Korea get in there anyway? Former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke offered the most likely explanation, telling CNN's Jeff Greenfield that Bush probably threw in Beloved Leader Kim Chong-il's bizarre dictatorship just to show the U.S. wasn't going after only Islamic countries.

Bush's speeches -- or the speeches written for Bush -- do nothing to expand America's knowledge of the world we live in. There is no nuance or complexity in the president's political language, and perhaps in his mind, and of course the world is filled with it. In fact, his own presidency is replete with it. Just days before his State of the Union speech, Bush pushed through the appointment of Otto Reich as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, despite his ties to the Cuban terrorist behind one of the worst crimes in aviation history. As Holbrooke dryly noted to Greenfield, "One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter." Then there's China. Demonized in the early days of the Bush presidency by administration hard-liners as a bellicose foe in the Cold War mode, Beijing has now become one of our best friends in the war on terrorism.

Bush sees the world in the black-and-white terms of the born-again fundamentalist that he is. He has vowed to root out evil wherever it is in the world (why not original sin too while he's at it?), and each day the press is filled with the names of new countries that the U.S. is targeting. In addition to the triad of evil, there is Yemen, Somalia, Indonesia, Algeria, the Central Asian republics, and of course American soldiers are already on the ground in the Philippines, where the full might of the U.S. arsenal is now being turned on a motley band called Abu Sayyaf, which as the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof has reported, is not an Islamic terror group, but "simply a gang of about 60 brutal thugs" with no proven ties to al-Qaida.

In the past few weeks, Bush's axis-of-evil hard line has succeeded in strengthening the hand of the militant mullahs in Iran and turning street demonstrations in Tehran that once hailed American democracy into "Death to the U.S.A." chants; in bringing Iran closer to its hated Iraqi enemy, with Saddam Hussein extending a friendly hand to the mullahs for the first time since their epic war in the 1980s; and in driving the North Korean dictatorship deeper into its cave, further entombing the "sunshine" peace process boldly started by South Korea's president Kim Dae Jung. It has also driven an ever-deeper wedge between the U.S. and its European, Asian and Arab allies, who have lined up to denounce Bush's foreign policy. South Korean official Choi Jin Wook called Bush's new line "very scary," while Chris Patten -- the European commissioner for international relations and a close associate of Tony Blair, the best friend in the world America could ever hope for -- blasted it as "absolutist and simplistic" and "unilateralist overdrive." All this and a skyrocketing military budget that threatens, along with Bush's ill-conceived tax cuts, to return the country to economy-wrecking Reagan-era deficits. Seldom has one State of the Union speech had such a global impact.

In a matter of weeks, Bush has poisoned the deep well of international sympathy that overflowed after Sept. 11 (when even Parisians were carrying signs saying "We're all Americans") and revived an American unilateralism more virulent than even in the first days of his administration. Instead of focusing on rebuilding Afghanistan and reinvigorating the Mideast peace process -- and thereby adding to America's luster by showing the world, and particularly its Islamic populations, that we stand for the progress of humanity and not just our own aggrandizement -- Bush has declared that the world is our buffer zone and we're prepared to police it on our own.

This is not to deny that the world can indeed be dark and dangerous and that America must sometimes venture into it bristling with our unmatched weaponry. Over the past months, I have strongly supported Bush's demolition of the al-Qaida network and Taliban government in Afghanistan. (And I will applaud even louder when the job is finished and U.S. forces have either captured Osama bin laden, Mullah Omar and their top aides or verified their deaths.) In addition, I have sharply criticized antiwar leftists who advocated a therapeutic response to terrorism, with none of the human mess that war entails. By denying their own country the right to defend itself militarily, these intellectuals and activists have so compromised themselves that, for now at least, they have lost their political credibility.

Nor is it to deny that, in the case of Saddam Hussein, America faces a dictator who is not only evil, but potentially threatening to our security as well, because of Saddam's undying embrace of doomsday weapons and his record of using them, as well as his intermittent courtship of terrorists. (Iran and North Korea present problems of a different sort, but ones that -- as President Clinton and our European allies have emphasized -- are best dealt with through engagement rather than Bush-style rejectionism.) Saddam is clearly the Bush team's fattest target, the great whale they let go when they were managing the first term of the Bush dynasty. On Tuesday, the administration underscored its seriousness about eliminating Saddam by sending out their voice of moderation, Colin Powell, to tell a Senate committee the dictator was definitely in its cross hairs this time, with or without the support of our allies.

But even in Saddam's case, there is less black-and-white than Bush junior's twangy rhetoric allows for. The history of U.S. relations with Baghdad is a case study in complexity, to put it mildly. Bush should just ask his father.

The United States' less than savory involvement with Iraq began after World War II, when our government stepped into the colonial shoes of Britain and took up the same tactics of political intrigue and clandestine force to assure access to the country's vast oil reserves on the West's terms and to offset Soviet influence in the region. Ever since we insinuated ourselves into what Allen Dulles called "the most dangerous spot on earth," the U.S. has cared about one thing only, "stability" -- which Washington has invariably defined not as a just and democratic government, but as a dictatorship amenable to our interests, no matter how brutal to its own people. The U.S. never resorted to the most extreme British tactics, as in 1920 when the English used its air force and gas warfare against civilians to crush a popular uprising against the British-installed monarchy (foreshadowing Saddam's ruthlessness against his own people). But, like Britain, Washington was not above orchestrating bloody coups aimed at eliminating leaders with nationalistic or Communist leanings.

In fact, it was one such coup -- the 1963 revolt that toppled Abdel Karim Kassem -- that first brought an ambitious young Ba'ath Party enforcer named Saddam Hussein to America's attention. Saddam, who was in exile in Cairo at the time, offered his services to the CIA, since the Ba'athists and the U.S. had a mutual enemy in Kassem, with his Communist sympathies. After Kassem was overthrown and executed, Saddam and the CIA again teamed up, according to his biographer Said K. Aburish, to compile lists of Iraqi political enemies for elimination. "The primary source" for the names on the list, according to Aburish, was "William McHale, a CIA agent operating under the cover of a Time magazine correspondent and the brother of Don McHale, then a senior officer in Washington ... But McHale, though he provided the longest list, was not alone, and a senior Egyptian intelligence officer, Christian Ba'athists in Lebanon, Saddam's small group in Cairo and other individuals and groups contributed to this shameful exercise. As often happens on such occasions, some people were killed as a result of personal vendettas.

"Many were disposed of on an individual basis -- a knock on the door followed by a hail of bullets; others died under torture or in groups of up to 30 at a time. After considerable research I have compiled a list of over 800 names, but the real figure is undoubtedly considerably higher. Those killed included people who represented the backbone of Iraqi society -- lawyers, doctors, academics and students -- as well as workers, women and children."

With the Ba'athists now part of the new government, Saddam was given the job of fortifying its security, roaming the country in search of enemies and personally torturing some of them in the aptly named "Palace of the End" from which no one returned. It was during this period that Saddam began openly using the maxims of his hero, Stalin, particularly this stirring one: "If there is a person then there is a problem; if there is no person then there is no problem."

When the Ba'athists were forced out of the government the following year, Saddam again had to flee. But by 1967, he and his fellow party leaders were once more conspiring with the CIA to overthrow the government of Abdel Salam Aref, who had attracted the enmity of the U.S. and Britain by inviting the Soviets to develop the vast North Rumeillah oil field. One American plotter, former Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson, was so blatant in his efforts that Iraqi demonstrators took to the streets in Baghdad shouting, "Go back home, Anderson!" Saddam and his fellow conspirators recruited support from a group of Iraqi military officers and in 1968 they took power. By 1970 Saddam himself was in complete control of the country. Since then he has perfected the cruel science of terror and torture, with his own people the chief victims. As Aburish observes, he "adopted the ways of Joseph Stalin and merged them with his tribal instincts ... a synthesis of Bedouin guile and Communist method." But as the 1970s and '80s passed, no U.S. administration moved to restrain the beast of Baghdad. He was, and remained, a creature of Washington and its Mideast policy.

The Iraq doomsday arsenal that inflames Washington hawks today was built with U.S. and Western assistance during the Reagan-Bush years, when Saddam was viewed as a bludgeon against our enemy, the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime. A U.S. company, American Type Culture Collection, shipped Baghdad strains of toxins and bacteria while Washington looked the other way. Saddam found other companies in the U.S., Britain, Germany, France and elsewhere willing to help supply his nuclear bomb program. "In all of this, we were just taking advantage of the West's 'don't ask, just sell' attitude toward Iraq," writes Khidir Hamza, the exiled Iraqi nuclear scientist whose memoir "Saddam's Bombmaker" is a deeply disturbing account of life inside the Saddam death culture.

During his war with Iran, Saddam began using his grotesque biochemical devices on his own people. According to Hamza, who calls this "one of the most grisly episodes of these awful weapons in history," Saddam began not with the Kurds, but with the Shiites -- the majority population he suspected of being fifth columnists during the war. He injected Shiites as they were released from prison with an anthrax-like toxin and then began experimenting with chemical agents on Shiite prisoners at a German-built "pesticide" factory. He then turned his infamous cousin, known as Ali Chemical, on the Kurds, whom Saddam also accused of being "back-stabbers" during the war. He began by dumping typhoid spores into Kurdish villagers' water supplies. Then, in late 1987, he targeted villages in the Balasan Valley for gas attacks. By March 1988, Ali Chemical was ready for his most dramatic massacre, a nerve-agent assault on the village of Halabjah, a name that Hamza notes "would join Guernica, My Lai and Srbrenica in the pantheon of history's infamous war crimes."

It is Halabjah that President Bush refers to when he reviles Saddam for "gassing his own people." But at the time, his father, then vice president and on his way to being elected president, made no similar expressions of outrage, nor did anyone in the Reagan administration, which cynically tried to put the blame for the gas attacks on Iran. "The world greeted the gruesome news with a deafening silence," Hamza writes. "Saddam was the West's dog in the fight against Iran."

When Bush senior moved into the White House, he continued to support Saddam, ignoring his barbaric human rights violations and repelling congressional efforts to impose sanctions on his regime. One Bush envoy to Baghad went as far as to describe the tyrant as "a force of moderation." During Bush's first year in office, writes Aburish, "the United States continued to supply Iraq with helicopter engines, vacuum pumps for a nuclear plant, sophisticated communications equipment, computers, bacteria strains and hundreds of tons of unrefined Sarin." Aburish also notes that an influential pro-Iraq business lobby group at the time employed the consulting services of Henry Kissinger's firm, including Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, who would soon join the administration.

The first Bush administration's attitude toward Saddam would drastically change, of course, when the dictator, in a monumental miscalculation, decided to invade Kuwait -- a misstep he would later blame on Bush ambassador April Glaspie, whom he was convinced had given him a green light to attack. Gassing his people was one thing, but threatening the West's oil supplies was quite another. Instead of a force for moderation, now Saddam was the new Hitler. Nonetheless, he was left in power after his military was crushed in the Gulf War. After calling on the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam, Bush left the brave Kurds and Shiites who responded to the mercies of the dictator -- a stunning betrayal dramatized in the 1999 film "Three Kings." Bush reportedly bowed to the wishes of his Saudi royal friends, who feared that a pro-Iran Shiite-led democracy might emerge from the ashes of Saddam's regime.

During the Clinton years, some old Bush hands would urge the Democratic administration to do what they had failed to, perhaps out of a nagging sense of guilt, and destroy Saddam. But by then, with the Gulf War coalition coming undone, it was no simple task. And for some Bush administration veterans, commerce was again a higher priority than anti-Saddam vigilance. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Dick Cheney told ABC News that as the head of the oil industry supply firm Halliburton, he had a strict policy against doing any business with Iraq -- "even arrangements that were supposedly legal." And yet, as the Financial Times would later uncover, Cheney's company actually did over $23 million worth of business with Saddam's government in 1998 and '99. As Salon's Damien Cave observed, Cheney, who made $36 million in salary at Halliburton before being elected vice president, ended up profiting from rebuilding what he had helped destroy as secretary of defense during the Gulf War.

All this history is by way of explaining why when the current President Bush puts on his best West Texas sheriff's voice and vows that Saddam "will see" what he has coming, as if the Iraqi dictator had just ridden into town looking for trouble instead of being escorted in by the U.S. cavalry, the rest of the world regards it as disingenuous. At this point, not one nation in the world, with the sole exception of Kuwait (for obvious reasons), supports a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Even Tony Blair has cautioned against it. Russia's Vladimir Putin, in whom Bush has invested so much foreign policy capital, has been particularly outspoken against it, as have the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, whose cooperation would be essential for such a military action.

The United States' unsavory history with Iraq, and our allies' opposition to an invasion, still should not deter us from bringing down Saddam if he can be proved to be the menace to American security and world peace that administration hawks contend he is. (Since the West established a no-fly zone in north and south Iraq, he is no longer the tormentor of his own Kurdish and Shiite people that he once was.) But so far, despite months of talk-show and Op-Ed lobbying by White House proxies like Richard Perle, James Woolsey and Laurie Mylroie, the Bush hard-liners have yet to make their case that Saddam represents a clear and present danger. Polls show that a majority of Americans, still riding on the euphoria of a relatively easy victory in Afghanistan, would back a strike against Saddam. But this support may prove feeble in the actual event of a war -- and in any case not even Pentagon hawk Paul Wolfowitz seriously believes that America can go it alone against Iraq, no matter what they're making Colin Powell say in public. So our allies still need to be persuaded.

The case might be there. I for one am still willing to be convinced. But the media needs to push the White House to lay out its argument in detail, because administration officials can't depend on Tony Blair to do it for them this time. Bush needs to be told that the evildoer rhetoric no longer suffices. The media needs to stop flapping their electronic flag logos for a moment and ask some tough questions. Let's start with these:

1) Why is Saddam more dangerous today than he was 11 years ago when President Bush's father decided to leave him in power?

2) The postwar sanctions and inspections imposed on Saddam did not completely stop him from continuing his doomsday weapons projects, but they did seriously hinder him. Most world leaders advocate escalating the pressure on Saddam to permit U.N. inspectors, who were thrown out in 1998, back into Iraq. Administration officials agree with this but have also announced that this step is doomed to fail so they are already pushing for Step 2, a military invasion. Why would Saddam comply with weapons inspections if the U.S. is already determined to attack him? Shouldn't Step 1 be given more of a chance to succeed?

3) Despite the administration's strenuous efforts, no compelling evidence has been found to tie Saddam into the Sept. 11 attacks or last fall's anthrax terrorism. Why, then, is Iraq being targeted in the war on terrorism?

4) Except for his war on Iran, which was fully supported by the West, and his invasion of Kuwait, which he initially thought was sanctioned by the U.S., Saddam's atrocities have been confined to his own people. Why should we believe that Saddam, after being soundly defeated in the Gulf War, still has expansionist aims?

5) Saddam is, if nothing else, a survivor in the cunning mode of Stalin. Why would he risk the instant destruction of his regime by attacking the U.S. or Israel with nuclear or biochemical weapons? And with the West on high alert to terrorist threats, would he risk passing on these doomsday weapons to networks like al-Qaida?

6) If Saddam is backed into a corner militarily, however, and feels he has nothing to lose, some knowledgeable observers fear that he might launch a final, desperate doomsday weapons attack on Israel. How can this be prevented?

7) Washington hawks claim that the Afghanistan strategy can be applied to Iraq, with the Iraq National Congress playing the role of the Northern Alliance. But the Iraqi opposition strikes many strategists (including some in the Pentagon) as soft from years of U.S.-subsidized exile, and woefully inexperienced on the battlefield. (The INC's one military strike against Saddam, in 1995, ended in a disastrous rout.) Until Bush's axis of evil speech, INC officials were kept at arm's length from the White House, with one senior administration official dismissing them as "half-assed people who can't get the president's ear" and "pissants" who have never "smelled cordite," according to a December article by the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh. Why should we have confidence that the INC can defeat Saddam's military? Would American ground troops have to be put more in harm's way than they were in Afghanistan?

8) The one group within the loose anti-Saddam coalition that does have plenty of battle experience -- mainly from fighting one another -- is the Kurds. But, according to a report in this week's Wall Street Journal, Iraq's Kurdish population -- after years of savage repression and deprivation -- has prospered in recent years, thanks to the U.S.-enforced no-fly zone in the country's north and the billions of dollars of Iraqi oil money that has been funneled to the Kurds under the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program. As a result, they are not eager to plunge back into war and strife. Why should the Kurds take up arms against Saddam again and why should they trust the U.S. this time, when they have been betrayed more than once by Washington?

9) Neighboring countries fear that a war on Iraq would splinter the country and destabilize the region. Turkey fears a Kurdish republic in the north and Saudi Arabia fears a breakaway Shiite state in the south. How can the U.S. assure its allies that a post-Saddam Iraq would not be even more volatile?

10) Is the U.S. prepared to accept a democratic government in Baghdad, even if it is controlled by Shiites and tilts toward anti-American Iran?

11) Given the meddlesome role that the U.S. and its principal ally Britain have historically played in Iraq -- as well as Russian concerns that we are mainly interested in usurping their oil concessions in Iraq -- how can we reassure the world that we are seeking peace and democracy and not simply the country's resources?

12) The U.S. has never demonstrated much concern for the health and human rights of the Iraqi people. Why should they believe another American-led war on their country will bring them anything more than further suffering?

The press is filled this week with Bush team tough-talk about Iraq. They're telling the Los Angeles Times, with their typical swagger, that the Iraq problem is finally going to be "solved," that "containment" of Saddam is no longer good enough, that the White House is ready to "push beyond the limitations imposed by international sentiment, Arab public opinion and even the original U.N. resolutions that opened the way for Operation Desert Storm 11 years ago." Dick Cheney is going to lay the plan on them when he visits our Middle East allies next month. And if they or the Euros don't like it, tough tamales. "At some point," one administration hard guy informed the New York Times this week, "the Europeans with butterflies in their stomach ... will see that they have a bipolar choice: they can get with the plan or get off."

The United States has been "solving" the Iraq problem pretty much on its own for the past 50 years, with less than satisfactory results. Perhaps what's needed this time is less swagger and more diplomacy -- and yes, though it's anathema in chest-thumping Washington these days, a worldly sense of the limits of American power. With its vastly superior military prowess, the U.S. could certainly go it alone in Iraq and other battle zones around the world. But do we want to be this exposed and solitary a player on the world stage? There are indeed many sleep-disturbing threats to America today -- but one of them is the triumphal hubris that has taken hold of our leadership.

David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

MORE FROM David TalbotFOLLOW davidtalbot

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush Iraq Middle East