Beyond the Axis of Evil

Not too long ago President Bush was calling Iran part of the Axis of Evil. Now Iran stands for the hope of the whole world. This stunning reversal is not due to any new formulation of policy or act of diplomacy. It is a tribute to the Iranian people and – no matter what may happen in the course of the next few days — we already owe them an enormous debt for reminding us what a precious and powerful thing human liberty is.

The Axis of Evil was a way of mapping the world, or of making the world conform to a very particular agenda. It implied and entailed a grand Theory of The World, and it relied on distortions that still inform the political debate and frame perceptions.

It’s part of a tangled web of lies and deceit we still need to undo.

Delivered on January 26, 2002, Bush’s Axis of Evil speech was one of the first loud drumbeats for the war in Iraq. David Frum came up with the phrase after being ordered by head White House speechwriter Mike Gerson to find some pithy way to make the case for toppling Saddam Hussein in the first State of the Union Bush would deliver after September 11th. In his speech, Bush described an alliance of rogue states and terrorists who threatened world peace and were intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction. That, we now know, was meant to scare us into war and stifle dissent. And it was the start of a terrible campaign.

Frum claims the phrase “Axis of Evil” was meant to recall Roosevelt’s urgent summons to action against the Axis powers. But it was clearly also an attempt to give Bush the Younger some of the historical stature and moral gravitas of Ronald Reagan, who drew a hard line against the Soviet Union in his “Evil Empire” speech. And yet for all his talk of liberating the Middle East, Bush never found his “tear down that wall” moment, perhaps because by 2002 the world had so changed from the time of Reagan that we were the only imperial power left standing.

Now, ironically, the Supreme Leader Ayotollah Khamenei claims this is a battle between good and evil, between “old friends and brothers” and “hungry wolves in ambush.” Western style diplomacy, says the Supreme Leader, is and always has been a charade: now the powers of the West “are showing their enmity against the Islamic Republic system and the most evil of them is the British government.” The Foreign Office lodged an official complaint; but Khamenei knows that right now his best chance is to tap into old resentments against the imperialists.

That requires another bizarre distortion of political realities on the ground, and a denial of the horrors perpetrated against ordinary Iranians. Maybe that makes those men evil, and maybe theocracy is one of the great evils the world has known. But that’s not really the urgent point and it’s not really time to debate it. This isn’t a morality play or a moot.

Bush’s Manichean rhetoric and its accompanying narrative of good, exceptional America fighting the evil masterminds who plot our destruction and that of the entire world was a Cheneyesque cartoon, a vast oversimplification. Even Peggy Noonan (no raving liberal, but a Reagan speechwriter) pointed out in her column today that what’s happening in Iran right now doesn’t conform to any images or preconceptions we have of Iran. History is being made before our eyes; but it certainly isn’t happening along any axis that George Bush or David Frum were capable of delineating, let alone seeing.

The scenes from the streets of Iran – of ordinary people out in the street, grappling with security forces, coming out against all odds to demonstrate, a young girl killed, people beaten and slashed and shot by the Basijis – should make us grope for new words, or leave us speechless. They defy neat descriptions and pat phrases. In Iran, right now, people are out in the streets, redrawing the map of the world.

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