Who’s laughing at the Axis of Evil now?

By Byron York

There are undoubtedly people who have a more vivid memory of Will Ferrell’s “Saturday Night Live” version of the Axis of Evil -- the one in which Ferrell, as President George W. Bush, denounced Iran, Iraq and “one of those Koreas” -- than of the real thing from Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address. A lot of comedians made a lot of fun of the Axis of Evil concept. But now, more than seven years later, it’s looking pretty solid.

This is what Bush said on the subject of Iran, Iraq and North Korea: “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an Axis of Evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”

You can argue until the end of time about Iraq’s place in that group. But is there anything you would disagree with in the former president’s assessment of Iran and North Korea? The last administration’s comedy fodder is this administration’s bipartisan consensus.



Recently, I called David Frum, who is a friend and also the Bush speechwriter who came up with the “axis” concept. (He originally wrote it as “Axis of Hatred.”) Given the seriousness of the situations in Iran and North Korea today, I asked, why all the mocking of the concept, virtually from the very beginning?

“The thing I never cease to marvel at,” Frum told me, “is that the phrase has become more and more of a joke even as the demonstration of the validity of the concept has become more extensive.” Frum listed some of the things the public knows now that it didn’t when Bush gave his speech -- the A.Q. Khan network, the Iran-North Korea connection, the Iran-Hamas link. That’s just the kind of thing Bush was talking about.

But why were people ever laughing? Well, a lot of them just liked to laugh at Bush. But Frum believes there’s something else -- the complicated nature of the word “evil.” “It just seemed over-torqued,” he told me. We use the word “evil,” Frum explained, in two very different ways. One is the totally serious sense in which we describe a very, very small group of bad actors -- a group that doesn’t extend far beyond Adolf Hitler. The other is the sense in which we use “evil” as a lighthearted description for things that are at most a bit naughty -- like saying we feel “evil” after ordering the chocolate cake. “If you’re not talking about Hitler, you’re talking about cake,” Frum said. “That’s why it was funny.” But that incongruity made it difficult for people to take the Axis of Evil seriously, even though it was, and is, quite serious.

Now, it’s not so hard. The Obama administration is trying to engage Iran on its nuclear program, and its allies in Congress worry there’s little time left to talk. On March 26, a group of top House Democrats sent a letter to President Obama warning that, “Engagement must be serious and credible, but it cannot be open-ended ... We cannot allow Iran to use diplomatic discussions as a cover for continuing to work on its nuclear program.” The Democratic lawmakers said Iran must stop enriching uranium “within at most a few months of the initiations of discussions.”

On North Korea, U.S. diplomats were unable to convince the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the country for its recent ballistic missile launch, even though U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, passed in 2006, demanded that North Korea “not conduct any ... launch of a ballistic missile” and “abandon (its) ballistic missile program in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” Instead of a strongly worded resolution, the Security Council approved a weaker statement saying North Korea “must comply fully with its obligations under Security Council Resolution 1718.” Which, of course, it didn’t do before.

So two-thirds of the Axis of Evil are still at it, and still among the most pressing problems facing the United States today. And that’s no “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.

Copyright 2009, Byron York. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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