Orwellian ‘Enemies’: The Enduring Utility of ‘Axes of Evil’

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms…"

~ George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" (1946)

Lieutenant General Robert P. White. Remember his name. I knew nothing of this man prior to Sunday. Nonetheless, in an exceptionally rare act of professional defiance for a serving officer, the top commander in Iraq at that, it seems White just knowingly – given Trump’s malicious, retaliatory track-record – risked his career in the pursuit of some semblance of sanity. Specifically, recent reports indicate that last week the general pushed back, in a "blunt memo," against a Pentagon directive that he "prepare a campaign to destroy an Iranian-backed militia group" in Iraq.

White apparently warned that such an escalation would be bloody, counterproductive, and risk outright war. This in the midst of a crippling Corona-epidemic. "Risky," "bloody," "counterproductive?" That’s precisely what many of us war skeptics have warned for years. Still, coming from a prominent, decorated, serving three-star general – who has commanded at the battalion, brigade, division, and corps level during his four Iraq tours – remains profound.

Though not himself a West Point graduate, White earned his commissioned on the very same day, in 1986, as the boss – Pentagon chief Mark Esper – he challenged, and the hawk’s hawk – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – who leads the current march to war with Iran. Given his proven wanton-willingness to potentially send other folks’ sons and daughters into unnecessary wars, a brief stint in uniform shouldn’t spare Pompeo – who never experienced combat – from the still appropriate “chickenhawk” label (incidentally, Esper did briefly serve in Desert Storm).

In stark proof that his cruelty knows no bounds, Pompeo reportedly (so far without success) urged President Trump to use this pandemic opportunity to bomb Iran. Thus, it’s apparent that while springing from the same "year group" (in army-speak), General White and the Secretaries Esper and Pompeo, rather differently experienced – and drew contrastive lessons from – the last 19 odd years of forever war. Nor could they be further apart on the campaign’s prudent path forward.

White, it seems, sees the world as it is: gray. Trump’s key national security leaders – personified by Pompeo (and his former chum, National Security Adviser John Bolton) – perceive it in platitudes. Theirs is a world of easily categorized countries: friends and foes; goodies and baddies. Bolton even crafted a list, replete with a catchy idiomatic title. Heck, they all do.

"The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible."

Bolton, Pompeo’s like-minded fellow-traveler, labeled them the "Troika of Tyranny” – Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua – and though Iran didn’t make this particular cut, that’s only because the Islamic Republic held a singular place in his regime-change fantasies. In fact, Bolton called for preemptive military strikes on Iran long before Pompeo made it cool. As he wrote in 2009, "A strike accompanied by effective public diplomacy could well turn Iran’s diverse population against an oppressive regime." Bolton must count as a veritable "OG" of Iran hawks.

Nevertheless, lest one fall into the common (media-magnified) trap and assume some sort of Trumpian uniqueness – or causation – from Pompeo’s Iran-obsession, and Bolton’s Troika, remember that we’ve seen this movie before. And not all that long ago.

Indeed, though few likely remember this harebrained ditty from a posthumously canonized president, Ronald Reagan got the bromide ball rolling way back in 1985, when he identified Iran, Libya, North Korea, Cuba and Nicaragua as "a confederation of terrorist states." Adding his own brand of Trumpian mafia-flavor, he even labeled the five countries "a new, international version of Murder Inc." Seventeen years on, President Bush II famously unveiled his own "Axis of Evil;" the culprits, this time, were Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Sixteen years hence, Trump delegated his name-blame-game to Bolton – with Pompeo cheering in the wings – and out rolled the tyranny "troika."

What’s one to make of these imprecise presidential heuristics? Well, for starters, some striking, near farcical, commonalities between the branded states emerge. Not a one counted among the great powers possessed of existential nuclear arsenals. In fact, none – at least at time of appearance – possessed a credible nuclear weapon at all. Nor (excepting, perhaps, contemporary North Korea) did any actually rate as anything more than highly-exaggerated – and certainly non-existential – threats to America itself. Instead, the main qualifications for the lists appear to be a state’s brown(ish) populace-pigment, vaguely "Muslim" or "Leftist" bent, and a perceived determination to pursue an independent (of Washington) international course.

Most importantly, at no time did these presidents seriously consider de-escalation or (certainly) reconciliation with the listed "bad boys," nor did the best U.S. aggression efforts "fix" any of these problem children, hence the states’ persistence on consequent lists. So, rationally, these pejorative-laden inventories possess little utility. In practice, however, they carry lethal consequences.


"We do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them."

While, to some extent, these presidents’ indicted countries may change, the victims’ outcomes do not. Real, often morbid, consequences have – then and now – befallen those unluckily listed states, the weight of wantonness resting upon their common citizens. Consider an, almost criminally brief, annotated roll call of suffering for the haplessly enumerated countries:

  • Libya (appearing on 1/3 lists): long-sanctioned, bombed in ’86, and – even after voluntarily jettisoning its nascent nuclear weapons’ program – bombed again in 2011. That time, the U.S.-led coalition helped change Libya’s regime for good. Civil war still reigns.
  • North Korea (2/3): blockades, starvation (with a decisive assist from its own cruel and incompetent leadership), and – of late – Trumpian "fire and fury" (probably empty) threats.
  • Nicaragua (2/3): a decidedly odd two-time honoree, this one; nonetheless, it faced decades of sanctions, government-undermining, and about 100,000 killed by U.S.-backed death squads, all the same.
  • Cuba (2/3): a 60-year blockade, one U.S.-backed, planned, and assisted, invasion, multiple assassination attempts on its leaders, and countless acts of sabotage (read: terrorism).
  • Iraq (1/3): two invasions, decades of bombing, some 500,000 sanctions-related child deaths, one regime change, a consequent ongoing civil war, and – most recently – refusal by the US to heed sovereign Parliamentary calls for an end to a now 17-year military occupation.
  • Venezuela (1/3): brutal sanctions, thousands of related excess deaths, a rather overt coup attempt, and – in a recent bit of a veritable Wild West foreign policy vigilantism – a $15 million US reward offer for "information leading to the arrest or prosecution of Maduro." As a side note: the award’s announcer, Attorney General William Barr, (not so) coincidentally, is herein reprising his own nefarious role in an earlier Latin American bounty-hunting expedition. It was he, notably, who mislead Congress (in 1989) regarding the legal justification for Bush I’s take down of another regional sovereign, Panama’s Manuel Noriega. His bounty, of course, was only $1 million, but, hey…it was the ‘80s.
  • Iran (2/3): two U.S.-supported proxy wars (1980-88, 2003-?), repeated bouts of sanctions, the drone-assassination of one of its most prominent civil-military figures, and, now – consistent threats of bombing and outright war.

Some of these specified states suffer still, their anguish COVID-amplified by U.S.-imposed economic "terrorism," and other – current or threatened – acts of war. Consider that the one truly persistent legacy of the Reagan-Bush-Trump (and others) denigratory naughty-lists. Threats, that really weren’t, were identified; Enemies, that needn’t necessarily be, were punished.

"It struck him that in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy but always against one’s own body."

Truth is: America already has a ready, real enemy in COVID-19. Only that threat, no matter how genuine, hardly suits the ulterior motives of hegemonic hawks perched atop Washington. Nor is it as personally and ideologically satisfying for a crew, born in the baby boom’s final years, and raised on stale Cold War "victory" myths. Besides, while with each passing day, it’s ever more disturbingly clear that Coronavirus containment – or, in Pompeo’s favored language, " restored deterrence” – is exceedingly difficult. Far easier (presumably) to isolate, and wage proxy/economic war on threat-inflated nation states like Iran. It’s a strategy as old as civilization: faced with internal challenge, leaders inevitably obfuscate, deny, distract, then counter-accuse.

While Trump lacks (thankfully?) the discipline or sophistication to craft and execute that long con, Pompeo – the military academy valedictorian – and his (cheekily self-styled) "West Point Mafia" most certainly do. The Secretary of State and his classmate-cronies, in collusion with Israel’s perennial political survivor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – with whom old Mike chats on the regular – clearly lead the current charge for escalatory war with Iran.

To his redirection of military and public focus onto external threats, Pompeo brings an absurdly apocalyptic flair that ought frighten us all. In 2015, even before he joined this administration, at a "God and Country Rally" before a Wichita, Kansas congregation, the Pompeo declared that "evil" (perchance, "axes" of) "is all around us," then described politics as "a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture."

Perhaps we’ll never know whether the Secretary, unlike his president, is a true believer – be it ideologic or eschatologically – or just another power-driven opportunist. Truth be told, its difficult to say which is worse. More certain is that Pompeo’s – and to a large extent Trump’s – laborious, reflexive reach for external enemies to blame is of a piece with a litany of unsavory leaders who preceded him. Increasingly authoritative states, Mr. Orwell once warned us, and Pompeo’s pivot to the ostensibly odious "other," serve mainly a disciplinary function: to distract and control the masses.

As the US Army, at least, on the Pentagon and Pompeo’s cue, takes an absurd turn from "preserving the force” to "readiness” for Iran War, in the midst of a paralyzing pandemic, one of the organization’s senior leaders was forced to challenge reckless orders. It is precisely in such Orwellian "moments of crisis," that men like General White are obliged to fight not "external enemies," but "against one’s own body." That "body," today, happens to be the institution to which he’s dedicated his life. In such times, a sacrificed career may be the best service the man will render…

*Note: All unlabeled subsection-leading quotes are attributed, also, to Mr. George Orwell*

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen