Bush's axis of incoherence.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Feb. 1 2002 11:46 AM

The Axis of Incoherence

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.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

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.


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Global Marches Demand Action on Climate Change


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.