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Even George H.W. Bush now denounces his son's "axis of evil" speech. And he's right.

George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush at the inauguration of the latter's presidential center in Dallas in 2013.
George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush at the inauguration of the latter's presidential center in Dallas in 2013.
Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty

Former President George H.W. Bush criticizes some of his son's top administration officials in a forthcoming biography, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"He had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer," Bush said of Cheney, according to a New York Times story on the biography, which is by Jon Meacham. "The big mistake that was made was letting Cheney bring in kind of his own State Department."

The elder Bush's opinion of his son's administration is not shocking: George W. Bush himself fired Rumsfeld in 2006 and, in his second term, sidelined the once-powerful Cheney. New York Times journalist Peter Baker writes in his book on the Bush-Cheney administration that Cheney's influence so eroded within the White House that Bush considered replacing him with Bill Frist, then a Republican senator.

Perhaps more surprising is that the elder Bush chose to criticize his son's famous 2002 "axis of evil" State of the Union speech, which named Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as part of the axis of countries that "pose a grave and growing danger." Here is the Times's summary from the biography:

"I do worry about some of the rhetoric that was out there — some of it his, maybe, and some of it the people around him," Mr. Bush told Mr. Meacham. "Hot rhetoric is pretty easy to get headlines, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the diplomatic problem."

Asked for specifics, Mr. Bush cited his son’s State of the Union address in 2002, when he described an "axis of evil" that included Iraq, Iran and North Korea. "You go back to the ‘axis of evil’ and these things and I think that might be historically proved to be not benefiting anything," he said.

Bush's comments reflect a growing consensus among foreign policy observers that the axis of evil speech, though widely praised at the time, was an enormous blunder, one that caused real-world harm for the United States and its interests.

How it set the stage for a disastrous war with Iraq

The speech was widely perceived, as Alex Wagner of the Arms Control Association wrote at the time, to be Bush "setting the stage for military actions against one or all of these states in the next iteration of the administration’s war on terrorism."

This turned out to be mostly correct: The speech was indeed part of the administration's political groundwork for launching a war against Iraq. David Frum, the White House speechwriter credited with the "axis of evil" line, wrote in his memoir that the speech was designed to build a case for invading Iraq.

According to Frum, White House head speechwriter Michael Gerson approached him in December 2001, just three months after the September 11 terrorist attacks, to write the speech. "Here's an assignment," Gerson told him. "Can you sum up in a sentence or two our best case for going after Iraq?" According to Frum, "His request to me could not have been simpler: I was to provide a justification for war."

Tellingly, the White House asked for the speech months before the Bush administration "revealed" intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that would serve as casus belli for the invasion.

This suggests, as several investigations of Bush administration decision-making have independently found, that the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq irrespective of any links to weapons of mass destruction or the 9/11 attacks, and then later sought justification. The Iraq War led to some 4,500 American military casualties, several hundred casualties among coalition allies, and an Iraqi death toll that is still debated but thought to number in the hundreds of thousands.

How the speech closed a window with Iran and hurt the US in Afghanistan

The "axis of evil" speech was not, in itself, responsible for the Iraq War. But it did cause some direct harm in US relations with another member of the so-called axis: Iran.

In the weeks and months before the speech, Iran and the US had been quietly but productively cooperating in Afghanistan, where they shared an enemy in the Taliban. They also shared an enemy in Iraq: Saddam Hussein. Their early cooperation in Afghanistan looked like it could open the door to more — maybe even to a fundamentally different Iran-US relationship after decades of enmity.

But as Dexter Filkins reported recently in the New Yorker, Bush's "axis of evil" speech killed any such opening, and caught America's own diplomats by surprise:

The good will didn’t last. In January, 2002, [American diplomat Ryan] Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an "Axis of Evil." Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the [lead Iranian] negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. "You completely damaged me," Crocker recalled him saying. "Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised." [Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, is one of Iran's most powerful military officials.]

The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reëvaluation of the United States, saying, "Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans." The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive. Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. "We were just that close," he said. "One word in one speech changed history."

It was Crocker's view, in other words, that the speech in itself closed the door not just on US-Iran cooperation against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but also on the potential for Iran to change its stance toward the United States.

At this point, while Iran had conducted significant research and development on its nuclear program, it had a relatively small enrichment program of only a handful of centrifuges. By 2009, when Bush left office, it had 5,000 centrifuges. Its program grew to about 20,000 centrifuges by the time Iran and the world powers reached this year's nuclear deal.

The loss of potentially increased cooperation in Afghanistan surely did not help US efforts there, either, given Iran's significant intelligence and military reach in the neighboring state.

How the speech played into North Korea's nuclear program

As for North Korea, that country's hostility toward the US and its many bad practices go too far back, and are too deeply rooted, to be tied to one speech from 2002. But the "axis of evil" speech certainly did not help.

Just under a year after the speech, North Korea announced it would formally withdraw from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, under which non-nuclear states promise not to develop nuclear weapons. In its letter announcing the withdrawal, North Korea claimed this was in response to its inclusion in the axis of evil and its fear that it would be targeted by Bush's policy of preemptive war.

This was almost certainly an excuse; North Korea had long pursued nuclear weapons, regardless of US rhetoric toward the country. But it may have nonetheless not been entirely a lie. Jean du Preez and William Potter wrote at the time for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il may in fact have concluded, based in part on a speech that appeared to single out North Korea for invasion, that the US posed a threat worthy of a nuclear deterrent.

Kim Jong Il may have decided after 30 years of being directly and indirectly threatened by U.S. nuclear posturing and recently being labeled as part of the "axis of evil," that North Korea's security requires a stockpile of nuclear weapons to deter a possible U.S. pre-emptive attack.

The authors rightly emphasize that this would just be one factor of several explaining North Korean behavior, if it motivated the decision at all. But the point is that there's no real reason to believe the speech helped things with North Korea, but there is reason to suspect there's at least a possibility that it helped accelerate North Korea's drive for a nuclear weapon.

The "axis of evil" speech, in other words, may well go down in history as one of the biggest blunders in foreign policy rhetoric in recent American history. The fact that even the speaker's own father, George H.W. Bush, sees the address as a mistake is a reflection of that fact — and could help cement the consensus of the speech as a grievous and regrettable moment.

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