Laying Off 'Evil' For a While

03/09/2007 12:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Five years ago, in a rousing speech before Congress, Pres. Bush brought back one of the right wing's favorite adjectives: evil. The Axis of Evil was a clear bid to equal Reagan's Evil Empire, and since the Soviet Union fell, there has been a prevailing myth that calling them evil played a key role. That's dubious, but clearly using "evil" to describe Iran, Syria, and North Korea has been counter-productive in the extreme. It has helped seal in the minds of a billion Muslims that the U.S. is implacably anti-Islam. Allies in Europe took the phrase to be needlessly provocative, a sign that by throwing tact to the wind, Bush was signaling that America's armed might would replace diplomacy.

The appeal of calling an adversary evil is that you get to identify with goodness and God while at the same time avoiding shades of gray, which are always irksome to rigid ideologues. Now we are being forced, after the failure of American might, to negotiate over Iraq with both Syria and Iran, and the third part of the Axis of Evil, North Korea, has struck a very good bargain for halting their nuclear program, a bargain the administration clearly resents but can do nothing about.

No doubt Bush and his inner circle would love to keep the term "evil" going, since it makes such an effective tool for engendering fear of terrorism. Why bother to portray any Muslims as troubled, divided, victimized, or--worst of all--sympathetic when you can wrap a big black bow around the whole package? Yet the fact remains that the right-wing penchant for belligerent 'America First' rhetoric needs to be shelved. Globalism will be the hallmark of the next half century, and whoever is elected to the White House in 2008, from either party, will be working hard from day one to reverse the damage on many fronts created by Bush's simplistic resort to war, fear, and black-and-white divisiveness. Don't expect to hear about evil anytime soon, which in itself is very good news.