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[Published in Slate, Feb. 1, 2002]

The Axis of Incoherence
By Robert Wright

In the days since President Bush's State of the Union address, observers have struggled to make sense of the phrase "axis of evil." Did Bush, in applying it to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, mean to compare them to the Axis powers of World War II? No, explained Ari Fleischer, the phrase was "more rhetorical than historical." Well, then, did Bush at least mean to imply what the word "axis" generically means—that there is some kind of coordination among these three nations in their evildoing? No, admitted even Bush cheerleader Daniel Pipes, there is no such relationship among Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

So what does the phrase "axis of evil" mean? I can think of three interpretations.

1) It means Bush is on a mission from God. Not long after Sept. 11, it was reported that Bush had found new "clarity" about his calling in life and was interpreting his place in history in religious terms. It wouldn't surprise me if he thinks that part of his mission is to teach a Godless society about moral absolutes—to re-inject the words "good" and "evil" into serious discourse. And, of course, if you take the word "evil" really seriously, the "axis" part follows; the various manifestations of evil are inherently coordinated, since they all have the same source. Iran and Iraq may hate each other, but they're both on Satan's team.

2) It means Bush is drunk on serotonin. People, like other animals, tend to do more of what they get rewarded for. In September, Bush gave a ringing, bellicose speech, which was lauded for its moral clarity, and then launched a war that was lauded for its brevity. Naturally, the thing to do next is give a more ringing, more bellicose speech. In this interpretation, the phrase "axis of evil" had a resonance that overrode its seeming incoherence—it was like what we in journalism refer to as "a fact too good to check."

3) It means Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, have masterfully thwarted logic and poetic justice.

Before 9/11, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were overwhelmingly concerned with threats coming from nation-states, in particular "rogue states." To combat these threats, they wanted to build a missile-defense system. Some critics thought that, actually, the real nuclear threat would come from terrorists, not nation-states. To pick one such critic out of a hat: I wrote in this space last May, "I live in the Washington, D.C., area, a few miles from ground zero. So I'm all for spending money to reduce the chances that the United States will be subject to nuclear attack. But missile defense is just not the smart way to spend that money."

Sept. 11 underscored the threat of attacks from terrorists, as opposed to nation-states. So you might think it would have undermined Rumsfeld's and Wolfowitz's credibility. It didn't—partly for reasons that still mystify me, but mainly for reasons that don't. Namely: We were now at war, and war naturally puts wind in the sails of the secretary of defense, especially when it results in early victory. So Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz now have great influence, and they've used it to resurrect their pre-9/11 agenda. Thus did "rogue states" become the "axis of evil."

Of course, the focus on "rogue states" isn't completely bogus. It's true that 9/11 underscored the dangers of leaving nuclear and biological weapons in the hands of states that might give them to terrorists who could sneak them into the United States. But Bush's "axis of evil" speech went beyond that legitimate logic; it included a prominent plug for missile defense—evidence of the nefarious Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz axis at work.

This interpretation of the "axis of evil" remark raises a conundrum: If Bush's ultimatum is for real—if we are one way or another going to strip the world's three menacing "rogue states" of any weapons of mass destruction—then why will we still need missile defense in the end? But people who ask questions like that are the kind of people who waste their time asking why you would call something an "axis" if it isn't one.

Which of these three interpretations do I buy? I actually think all three factors play a role, and together constitute an "axis of incoherence." (In my metaphysics, all incoherence has a common, primordial source, and is hence connected—and humankind's mission is to rid the world of it, a project that is, um, still underway.) Yet it isn't the incoherence that most bothers me. And it isn't really the possibility of war that bothers me. (I could live with attacking Iraq if, as I've urged, we did it in a particular way.) What bothers me is the evidence that Bush is ill-suited to this moment in history.

Do you remember the days right after Sept. 11? When liberal internationalist journalists hopefully asserted that the Bush administration could no longer ignore America's inherent involvement with the world, could no longer afford unilateralism, could no longer disdain world opinion? They even scrounged around and found evidence that Bush was getting the picture. For example: He was "consulting with allies." (Imagine!)

So much for that story line. "Axis of evil" was a phrase manufactured for domestic consumption, with disregard for the existence of a) our allies; b) those particular allies that have to deal with these "rogue states" up close and personal, such as South Korea; c) any terrorist recruiters who can turn Bush's more florid turns of phrase into effective propaganda. Bush could have delivered a warning to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea just as forcefully without using a phrase so incendiary. That the world's opinion of America matters—certainly one of the top few lessons of 9/11—continues to elude our leader.

Bush said in his State of the Union address, "We are protected from attack only by vigorous action abroad, and increased vigilance at home." Actually, the truth is much more complicated than that. But I suppose this is no time to split hairs.

Robert Wright, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Moral Animal and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.