Would It Be an Evil Axis?
The other night President Bush proclaimed, in the State of the Union address, that the war on terror must now confront an "evil axis" of three countries North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. Today (1 February) he brazenly reaffirmed the denunciation. While the first two selections are somewhat predictable, all things considered, the third is not. Not only is it strange to link the one seemingly progressive Islamic state (Iran) with bin Ladenite terrorists, but it also defies geometry to have two points on the "axis" positioned right next to one another on the map. At first, it would seem that Bush was discarding traditional interventionist politics, in overcoming the normal desire to pit neighbor against neighbor. Yet for the predictable strategy of empire to be fulfilled here, the real challenge may be in approaching the "axis" from other borders, ones which were left unstated in the speech.
THE COMEDY OF EVILS
Before we get to that, a few words must be spent on the inherent ludicrousness of the White House's rhetoric. When we consider that a 48 minute speech was riddled with over 40 standing ovations, it's safe to say that the president could have said just about anything and been applauded. Yet did Mr. Bush really have to go so far as the "evil axis" bit? He ended up sounding like Mike Myers' character "Dr. Evil" (from the Bond spoof Austin Powers) for whom everything has to be evil if it is worth mentioning at all. We already were aware that the war on terrorism is essentially "a battle between good and evil"; now we know exactly who embodies those negative qualities.
Yet the stark duality of the "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists" logic has not only stifled any kind of critical thought in the US; it has also shown the extent to which the American people think ignorance is bliss. There is a finality, an ultimate feel-good condemnation, that is flung along with the epithet evil. It is quite soothing to know that one's enemy is utterly devoid of good, and that his actions are nothing more than a repetitive aberration of humanity.
On the other hand, cause-determining hypotheses that are even slightly more subtle do not pack the same punch. Propaganda's need for sparking an emotional reaction in its victims is what drives say, David Horowitz, to prefer soundbites and lurid photos to in-depth investigations. This hurried process of oversight preserves the stoutness of conviction in the general public that is required to start and sustain a war. In the end, everyone is happier and more content knowing that their cause is righteous, that of their enemies, depraved. And isn't this exactly how the vast, unruly world of "Islamic terrorists" perceives the Euro-American enemy?
In any case, it's clear that American policy-makers are not interested in really discussing the underlying reasons for Arab hostility that led to September 11th (and beyond). After all, why confuse the citizenry with longwinded discourses on Israel, oil, military bases in the Arabian peninsula, economic disparities, corruption, criminal gangs, the machinations of world powers, and all the other interconnected reasons for the single greatest tragedy in American history? Whether the public would be bewildered by such a barrage of information, or be prepared to assimilate it, is immaterial to policy makers: in either case, it would distract us from the business at hand, which is war. And here, like so many times before, it's a case of shoot now, justify later (like way later).
STRATEGIC CONSIDERATIONS: IRAN AND AFGHANISTAN
While it may not make sense right away, proclaiming Iran to be one of the top three enemies of the United States may have some uses. Particularly, it may indicate greater behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering than has been reported as of yet. A couple of specific considerations lend credence to this thought. They involve the new focus on Afghanistan, and warming relations with Russia.
Will Hamid Karzai be remembered as the sage rejuvenator of Afghanistan, or simply as another one of Washington's failed puppet protégés? Unless he can keep the country together in these awkward early stages, we may never get to find out. New reports have civil war going on in two theaters: first, rival Northern Alliance armies are said to be battling near Mazar-i-Sharif, while fighting rages in Paktia province between the government forces of Badshah Khan and his adversary, Saif Ullah. The Northern Alliance has been accused of destabilizing intervention here. In the latter region, consistent reports over the last few months have accused Iran of secretly meddling in Afghanistan's affairs, by sending weapons and intelligence agents to Afghan militia leaders. The purpose, it is alleged, is to undermine the government of Hamid Karzai.
If these reports are true, then it is easily understandable why Bush would want to put Iran in its place. Mess with us, he threatens, and you are entering into a world of pain. And this is what has come to pass so far: the US and Britain warned Iran, on 1 February, not to start another "Great Game." In other words, don't try to assert your own regional influence, because the only influence in Afghanistan had better come from the West.
Yet if the reports are false (as Iran maintains), then the situation is more complex. Have the accusations against Iran been a means of telegraphing Bush's new policy in advance in order to justify it when the time comes? Or are Bush's concerns with Iran completely independent of its relations with Afghanistan?
STRATEGIC CONSIDERATIONS: RUSSIA AND IRAN
Similarly nebulous is the position of Russia in all this. Not overly pleased at having Washington in its own backyard, Russia has nevertheless signed up for the war on terror, and earned the praise of Uncle Sam. Sometimes acrimonious Russian-Iranian tensions over the Caspian oil deposits are well-known. Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran all claim their rightful share, but drawing the boundaries in the water has proven difficult not least of all because the total amount and exact location of the oil in question are still to be discovered.
Russian-Iranian relations are also colored more generally by the question of influence in the Caucasus. For several hundred years, the Russian and Iranian spheres of influence have overlapped, waxed and waned, and are now in the process of being redefined again. Feisty Georgia, as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan, are looking westward for support, to the irritation of Moscow. Russia would like to maintain its influence in these countries, not least of all to aid the prosecution of its war in Chechnya.
In addition, there is the question of the oil pipeline. Three routes have been proposed for diverting the oil and gas of the Caspian region to Europe: through Iran, through Georgia and Turkey, or through Russia. The policy of the Clinton administration was to keep it out of Russia at all costs; thus the idea for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. However, analysts last year, citing its greater cost and logistical difficulties, suggested that Baku-Ceyhan was just a dream, and that Iran might have a shot at it after all. There was even talk of Dick Cheney's fondness of the Iranians motivating a decision in their favor.
This, perhaps, has been changed for good. The new friendship with Russia, and whatever undisclosed "agreements" have been made, has most likely required some concessions among them, perhaps, the sacrifice of Iran and its more feasible, cheaper pipeline route. It is not difficult to imagine that Russia (which already has OPEC at its mercy in terms of oil prices) would seek to consolidate its share of the Caspian oil and gas riches, by either bringing a pipeline through Russia, or through Georgia (which at present involves substantially the same dynamics).
This thesis becomes more likely when we consider Russia's position on Iraq. Russia has consistently opposed expanding the war on terror to Iraq, unless there is direct evidence of Saddam's involvement with September 11th something which really should have been proven by now, were it true. Iraq has long been a strategic ally of Russia's, and there is no doubt that there would be a lot of trouble for Washington were Iraq to be targeted.
The fact that Iraq was explicitly named as an "axis of evil" does not indicate a lack of Russian support; certainly any diplomat must concede that "attack Iraq!" has been in the minds of many senior American officials since September 11th and long before. For months, Paul Wolfowitz et al. have been demanding that the US take out Saddam. Whether it be Texas-style vigilante justice, or just revenge for George Senior's failure to remove the Iraqi leader in 1991, this impulse is strong. Yet in the end, it may lose out to the "attack Iran!" credo. If, as seems likely, it is Russian and Afghan distrust of Iran that has forced the US into this position, it would come as a real eye-opener as to just how susceptible America really is to being sucked into the interventionist quagmire.
The grand irony, of course, is that under President Khatemi, Iran has sought to modernize and westernize. Even if progress is slow and the steps faltering, there is a marked difference between Iran and say, Saudi Arabia. After all, how many Iranians were involved with September 11th? And how many Iranians are currently being detained at Guantanamo Bay? If there are any at all, it is surely far fewer than the 100 Saudi prisoners held there. Indeed, the extent to which Saudis funded and participated in Al Qaeda operations has been a consistent source of embarrassment for that country ever since September 11th. It would be a shame, but a predictable one, if the United States was duped into intervening against the wrong country. Yet for most of us, it won't really matter. With the enemy none other than evil itself, no one will ever be the wiser.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire – the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia.
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