The Magazine

Speaking of Evil . . .

Feb 25, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 23 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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THERE'S BEEN a great lot of hand-wringing these past few weeks over the "axis of evil," President Bush's State of the Union coinage for hostile foreign dictatorships that cultivate weapons of mass destruction and make sponsorship of terrorism a conscious policy. The president's critics wonder: Do the three despotisms he has located in this orbit--Iran, Iraq, and North Korea--genuinely constitute a discrete and coherent "axis" on the world stage? And insofar as they might not, what does the president's commitment to pursue "regime change" in these three countries imply about U.S. relations with a host of other terror-infected, arms-proliferating dictatorships around the globe?

This latter question becomes all the more interesting upon consideration of what's not been controversial about the president's remark. No one of any stature complains that Saddam Hussein, the Iranian mullahs, and Kim Jong Il lead governments that aren't evil. Nor does any respectable voice suggest that states like these might be made virtuous purely through exposure to the enlightened world's diplomatic customs and commercial treasures. Whether, to what extent, by what means, and on what schedule America should assume actual responsibility for the dissolution of aggressive foreign tyrannies seems open to debate. That America should, at very least, seek to contain and isolate such regimes--and announce our hope they be replaced--seems a matter of general consensus, however.

And then there is the People's Republic of China, which President Bush visits Thursday and Friday of this week.

For three decades and seven presidencies, almost without interruption, it has been the official policy of the United States to make a full place for China in the community of civilized nations, as if the invitation alone conferred the necessary qualifications. China's market reforms, proponents of this policy have promised, will inevitably liberalize its domestic politics and international posture. But it has never happened. China remains implacably, essentially hostile to the United States, as a brief peek at any given issue of a state-run Chinese newspaper makes clear. China maintains a large and growing arsenal of ballistic weaponry, targeted on the United States and its democratic allies, and persists in exporting aggressive military technology to rogue and tinderbox states across the globe.

Moreover--worst, of course--China continues to be a dictatorship, its market reforms apparently designed only to smooth the transition from communism to something like national socialism. It is the world's largest and most powerful terrorist regime. That the terror is directed only against China's own citizens (if you're prepared to overlook Tibet) and that American corporations would dearly love to sell each victim some much needed life insurance and a cheeseburger . . . well, these are not facts sufficient to distinguish the People's Republic, in principle, from any other country in which a "regime change" might be hoped for. Are they? Is the Chinese Communist party somehow less deserving of pariah status, because somehow less "evil," than the strongmen who govern Iran, Iraq, and North Korea?

It would be impossible to defend such a proposition. And we rather doubt George W. Bush believes it. "Engagement" is a bipartisan delusion, of course, and many of his aides have suffered from it throughout their careers. But Bush himself has always seemed a man slightly but significantly apart from the herd: a president unlikely to make fresh accommodation with foreign horror simply because Brent Scowcroft says it's the smart thing to do--and visibly uncomfortable with such moral compromises of U.S. policy as he has inherited from his predecessors. Our current president is not Bill Clinton, for example, who as it happens will be in Sydney, Australia, this week to pocket $300,000 for a speech to a Beijing front-group promoting China's "peaceful" reabsorption of Taiwan. Bush has already announced, after all, that his government will do whatever might be necessary to defend Taiwan's democracy. Bush has also--and personally--made plain his disgust with Beijing's persecution of those "unauthorized" social and religious groups millions of Chinese people bravely continue to join.