"You see the earth takes 24 hours to turn round on its axis'... 'Talking of axes', said the Duchess, 'chop off her head!'" Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
When George Bush described a collection of three countries that have never formed an alliance of any kind as an "axis of evil", many people criticised him for imprecise language. Most of the defences for his "axis of evil" reference I have read either claimed Mr. Bush's critics somehow approved of the governments he lumped together, or simply questioned their testosterone levels. In fact, the inaccuracy of Mr. Bush's statement matters less than the alarming implications of his policy.
The metaphor in Mr. Bush's statement suggests that we can wage the war on terror the way our parents waged the Second World War, because we have identified our enemy as a set of nations, and we can achieve a political victory through military means. If Mr. Bush has proof of the first proposition, he hasn't shared it with either the public; to judge from the international reaction, he hasn't shared it with the other countries that have troops on the ground in Afghanistan, either. But even Mr. Bush has identified the main villains in international terrorism, will any military action bring about the political resolution we all want?
In the case of Iraq, a military action might topple Saddam Hussein, but having done so, the United States or the NATO allies would have to find someone to take his place who would both agree to the basic requirements of the West and govern Iraq effectively. If this sounds easy, keep in mind that when the British left Iraq, they left behing a friendly government, which the Iraqis tore to pieces. Not figuratively.
In an effort to win the Cold War, the Reagan administration supported the Islamic resistance in Afghanistan, and set the stage for the rise of a young Saudi businessman and fanatic named Osama bin Laden. Mr. Bush may believe he has the law of unintended consequences more firmly under control than Mr. Reagan did; considering the stakes, I hope so. When the Russians left Afghanistan, they did not leave any nuclear weapons for the Mujahedin. If Saddam Hussein has a nuclear program, whoever inherits Iraq will inherit any part of the Iraqi arsenal private groups haven't made off with.
In the case of Iran, military action could actually lead to a disastrous missed opportunity. This war actually involves a principle: the principle of religious freedom. Osama bin Laden and al Qaida believe that their religion should dominate the "unbelievers" by force, because the righteous have the right, and the obligation, to rule the unrighteous. We in Western secular democracies believe that no religion should need to use political or military power, that the use of force corrupts religious belief, and so we keep politics and religion separate. If the theocracy in Iran collapses under pressure from its own subjects, that would undermine calls for Muslim theocracy, and especially calls for martyrdom in the service of theocracy. After all, if a theocracy can only last a generation, who would want to give their life for the dream of establishing one? Few events would undermine Islamic extremism more than the peaceful transition of Iran to a more or less secular democracy. Military pressure would only give the theocrats an excuse for their failures.
The Axis of Evil metaphor misses the point of the war in another way, as well; it reads alarmingly like a list of the usual suspects. Enumerating Iran, Iraq, and North Korea leaves such noxious regimes as Sudan off the hook, despite their ongoing religious war against the South.
The Bush administration may well have answers for all of these objections; I would like to see these answers. I believe the problems exist, and the stakes certainly justify a demand that the politicians think their actions through more thoroughly than a flawed metaphor would suggest.
John Spragge is president of Dancing Cat Software of Ann Arbor Michigan. His Medicine Line columns appear from time to time in the Ethical Spectacle.