President Bush will have a global audience for his State of the Union address, and he should again focus on the Axis of Evil. Not since Ronald Reagan has an American president been subjected to so much vilification and contempt for speaking the truth, and it is important for Mr. Bush to remind the world that the Axis of Evil is real.
Most commentators ridiculed the very idea of the Axis of Evil, just as they laughed at Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire. The deep thinkers laughed at Reagan, and then somberly warned that such language was not only misguided, but provocative, as if the Kremlin would be more aggressive as a result of the president’s speech. In fact, Reagan’s words had the opposite effect. We subsequently learned that the Evil Empire speech galvanized the internal opposition to Soviet Communism by giving heart to the dissidents. The greatest of the Soviet freedom fighters, from Bukovsky to Sharansky, have since written about the surge of hope they felt when they saw that the American president understood why they were fighting.
The same critique was leveled against President Bush when he spoke of the Axis of Evil, and his attackers both ridicule him and say that the world would be a safer place if only he would stop making outrageous statements. Yet, if we prevail in the war against terrorism, we will eventually discover that the president’s words gave hope to those fighting against tyranny from Baghdad to Pyongyang.
The only legitimate criticism of the Axis of Evil speech is that it was too limited, not that it was fanciful. There is indeed a working alliance involving Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, and it embraces other countries as well, including Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. It is a political and strategic alliance that unites this generation’s tyrants in common cause against the democratic West whose very existence threatens their grip on power by inspiring their peoples to fight for freedom. The Axis countries share military technology and help one another to develop the most lethal weapons available to them. North Korea promised to stop testing missiles, so, for several years, Iran has done it for them. Once proven, the technology moves from Pyongyang to the other terror sponsors, including Saudi Arabia. Iranian ships transport weapons to Palestinian terrorists, as in the celebrated case of the Karine A last winter, and in the more recent Italian seizure of an Iranian ship loaded with chemical precursors headed for Libya. Hardly a week goes by without another story documenting the flow of chemicals and finished weapons between Iraq, Iran and Syria, often ending in the murderous hands of the terror network, from al Qaeda and the Islamic Jihad to Hezbollah and Hamas. Like the countries that compose the Axis, the terror groups are now working intimately with one another, to the point where it hardly makes sense to separate them, either in our analysis of the threat they pose, or in our strategic planning.
As he was right to call the world’s attention to the true nature of the terror threat, so President Bush was right to insist that we are not engaged in a war with Islam as such. To be sure, even such secular socialists as Saddam Hussein and the Assad family in Syria are now quoting Mohammed to justify their murderous activities, but their words are the ones the critics should be ridiculing. If anyone insists on believing that all of Islam is mobilized against us, they should read the recent articles in The Economist and the New York Times that detailed the increasingly open revolt of Iran’s ayatollahs in the holy city of Qom against the fusion of mosque and state in the Islamic Republic. They know that President Bush is right, and that the best hope for Islam lies in the defeat of the jihadists and a return of religion to a separate domain.
The Evil Empire was just that, and President Reagan’s insistence that it be so recognized was crucial to our ability to vanquish it. President Bush should insist on the truth of his own words. The Axis of Evil is not a rhetorical device. It is in fact the enemy we face, and must defeat, if we are to avoid attacks far more deadly than those we endured on September 11.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen, Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, can be reached through Benador Associates.