Distorted Views of the Enemy and Bush’s “Axis of Evil”

Many years ago, while the war in Vietnam still raged, the psychologist Ralph K. White wrote a book entitled Nobody Wanted War that has resonated deeply with my own thinking about war. I’ve long believed that the willingness of our government to kill and bring misery to millions of powerless people in nations like Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, which represent no direct threat to us, cannot be justified alone in terms of a broad strategic conception of national defense. Instead, it must for the most part be rationalized by an appeal to the darker dynamics of human psychology.

White’s book, though it was focused primarily on the Vietnam War, seeks broadly to identify psychological factors common both to that war and to World Wars I and II that can distort our perceptions of an adversary’s true motivations and thereby justify making war against him. Today, it seems, those same factors can also shed light on the relentless militancy of America’s foreign policy and, in particular, our continuing “war on terrorism.” The principal factors White sees in producing distorted views of the enemy can be characterized in capsule form as follows:

  • A diabolical enemy-image. The enemy is bad and must be destroyed. He is perceived as externally aggressive and internally suppressive. His institutions and ideology are a cancer that must at any cost be prevented from spreading. This diabolical enemy-image is well exemplified by the slogan popular in the fifties: “Better dead than red.” Today’s version is that “they” comprise an “axis of evil,” are “enemies of freedom,” and “seek to destroy our way of life.”
  • The moral self-image. Our way is good and honorable and must be preserved. Our part of the world is the “Free World,” despite its inclusion of a number of nations with self-evidently totalitarian governments. Both Good and God are on our side. By implication, countries not aligned with us reject freedom and godliness. This congratulatory self-image was exemplified by the German World War I slogan: “Gott Mit Uns” (“May God Be with Us”)—meaning also, by implication, “May God Not Be with Our Foe.” Osama Bin Laden himself was convinced God was on his side; but, then again, so was President Bush.
  • The virile self-image. In 1914, each of the “Great Powers” feared “losing our position as a Great Power.” Analogous cases exist today. Nations are reluctant to retreat lest they be deemed weak or irresolute. This reluctance prevails even when they decide the situation at hand is not worth a fight, or, indeed, that they may even be in the wrong. The image of virility must be preserved at any cost. The essential thing is to seem consistent, strong and firm. Bush told us that we couldn’t allow a gang of terrorist thugs to deflect us from our goal of bringing freedom to the Iraqi people. “National decision-makers,” White wrote, “judge themselves and expect to be judged by others not as good vs. bad, or right vs. wrong, but strong vs. weak.”
  • Selective inattention. This distortion stems from a tendency to focus attention only on information that reinforces the black-and-white views described above. What may be “gray,” or even “white,” elements on the enemy side are glossed over; the only interest is to paint the enemy “black.”
  • Absence of empathy. This is the failure to try to understand how the situation looks from the adversary’s point of view.
  • Military overconfidence. Nations generally enter wars with full confidence that they can win. There is a tendency also to not fully appreciate how long the war might last, and how much it might cost in both resources and casualties. Germany and Japan certainly regretted having started World War II. And, in the U.S., most of the people and their leadership now regret having entered both the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq.

Do White’s “Distortions” Explain President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” Speech? 

President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address in 2002 included several references that seem to lend credence to the distortions Dr. White cites in the perceptions nations have of would-be adversaries and their justifications for waging war against them. Consider the following passages from the Bush speech:

A diabolical enemy image:

“Our … goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction. Some of these regimes have been pretty quiet since September 11, but we know their true nature. North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens, leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. This is a regime that agreed to international inspections then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world. States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”

The moral self-image:

Speaking to a war widow in the audience, Bush said:

Shannon, I assure you and all who have lost a loved one that our cause is just, and our country will never forget the debt we owe Michael and all who gave their lives for freedom. Our cause is just, and it continues.

Bush later said:

Our enemies send other people’s children on missions of suicide and murder. They embrace tyranny and death as a cause and a creed. We stand for a different choice—made long ago, on the day of our founding. We affirm it again today. We choose freedom and the dignity of every life.

The virile self-image:

All nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security. We’ll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons. Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun. This campaign may not be finished on our watch, yet it must be and it will be waged on our watch…. History has called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight.

Selective inattention:

Our discoveries in Afghanistan confirmed our worst fears and showed us the true scope of the task ahead. We have seen the depth of our enemies’ hatred in videos where they laugh about the loss of innocent life. And the depth of their hatred is equaled by the madness of the destruction they design.

Absence of empathy:

Thanks to the work of our law enforcement officials and coalition partners, hundreds of terrorists have been arrested, yet tens of thousands of trained terrorists are still at large. These enemies view the entire world as a battlefield, and we must pursue them wherever they are. So long as training camps operate, so long as nations harbor terrorists, freedom is at risk and America and our allies must not, and will not, allow it…. My hope is that all nations will heed our call and eliminate the terrorist parasites who threaten their countries and our own.

Military overconfidence:

We will work closely with our coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction. We will develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect America and our allies from sudden attack. Our first priority must always be the security of our nation, and that will be reflected in the budget I send to Congress. My budget supports three great goals for America: We will win this war, we will protect our homeland, and we will revive our economy.

Attitudes Toward Adversaries Can Change, Greatly Reducing the Momentum for War  

As I see it, Bush’s 2002 speech clearly demonstrates the relevance of the “distortions” of the enemy cited by Dr. White as key factors in helping nations justify and build support for war. In his book, White also deals with the broader phenomenon of what he terms “black-and-white thinking” about the adversary. He maintains that this absolutist perspective is given staying power through the strong desire of ordinary citizens to conform to the views of their leaders.

What White does not consider, however, is the swiftness with which “group-think” can switch from a black-and-white to a more nuanced perspective when leadership shows the way. For instance, U.S. opinion toward the Soviet Union swung from negative to positive to negative, and then to nuanced, in the relatively short span of 35 years. Similarly, our collective opinion of China moved, during a short six-month period centered on the Kissinger-Nixon visit, from a troubled vision of “yellow hordes” to a widely held and approved perception of a progressive, industrious, insect-free, crime-free, well-fed and generally benign China.

Today, the question is this: What lessons can we take from Dr. White’s catalog of factors that distort our understanding of our adversaries’ true motivations and serve to justify support for making war against them?

Here, coming from a total layman in the field of international relations, are just a few ideas:

  • Give diplomacy a chance. Before taking or even threatening military action, let’s ask ourselves what motivates the enemy or adversary, and then seek arrangements through diplomacy that can avoid war. In the case of our war in Iraq, we now know that it is far more probable that Saddam kicked out U.N. inspectors not because they might find WMDs, but because they would find that he had none, thereby exposing his military weakness.
  • Take the time needed to let peace happen. Had we given the U.N. inspectors enough time, we and the world would have learned that there were no WMDs in Iraq. That finding would have removed the reason for a rush to war, and would also have made clear that Iraq was not an imminent threat.
  • Enemy bluster may result from fear, rather than from aggressive intent. It is true that the North Koreans, as a now topical example, have engaged both in the development of nuclear weapons and in belligerent behavior. We see their actions as aggressive. But they, on the other hand, almost certainly fear the prospect of U.S. military action against them that is aimed at “regime change.” From that perspective, they see their weapons development as a deterrent, not as aggression. Through one-on-one diplomatic interaction, we might offer non-aggression guarantees to North Korea and countries of a similar mindset in exchange for the cessation of their military development programs.
  • Trade trumps confrontation. In the 1990s, South and North Korea established a Special Economic Zone inside North Korea, to which South Korea furnished technology, investments and management and North Korea provided laborers. The goal, which was widely supported by the people of South Korea, was to grow the enterprise to 2,000 companies, employing 700,000 North Korean workers by 2012 as a first step toward de facto unification of the Korean peninsula. Regrettably, this effort has been opposed by the U.S., whose policy is to isolate North Korea rather than to co-opt it.
  • Perception, or more accurately, misperception, plays a central role in the causes of war. In international conflicts, such as today’s clash with Putin over NATO expansion, what is to one side an alliance in support of freedom may well represent military encircle­ment to the other. Similarly, what is to one side an act of liberation may represent aggression to the other, and what is to one side a firm stamping out of internal disputes may seem to the other a suppression of human rights. So it goes in all confrontations. Every military believes it is nobly defending its nation’s rights; none considers itself an aggressor. Even Hitler began by defending the “rights” of the German people to seek to re­store territories he perceived as rightfully belonging to the Third Reich.
  • Establishment of a cabinet-level Department of Peace should be seriously considered. Years ago, then-Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D, Ohio) vigorously, but unsuccessfully, pressed the case for such a new department. If established, it could provide an important balance to those in the Administration, State Department, and Department of Defense who argue the case for a militant foreign policy and press for never-ending war.

Nuclear Weapons and the Means to Provide a Decent Life for All Have Made War both Irrational and Indefensible

Unfortunately, the existing mindset of Americans and their leaders seems incompatible with due attention to, or adoption of, such ideas. Most people still have a way of convincing themselves that, by fighting wars in behalf of their nation, they are they serving the cause of peace and defending their own safety, freedom, and way of life. Moreover, although nations are in many ways becoming increasingly interdependent, it is not yet clear they would be willing to accept the small, but requisite, sacrifice of sovereignty that would be necessary to resolve intractable conflicts with other nations without going to war.

As I see it, two developments are needed to end war as a national institution. The first is a recognition by all national governments that, in today’s nuclear world, war itself is far more dangerous to the state and its society than the failure to defeat any putative adversary. The second is a concomitant willingness by those governments to suspend their national sovereignty to the extent needed to accept binding arbitration by a sanctioned international body of any intractable inter- or intra-national conflicts in which they might become involved. Such a sacrifice would not be easy, since the right of unqualified sovereignty has been the defining attribute of nation-states throughout history. On the other hand, a rational curb on sovereignty is not out of the question, since a devotion to peace is a central value in the belief systems of all developed cultures.

The human race now has the knowledge, the global wealth, and the technological means to make a good life available to all people. But it also possesses the knowledge and the means to blot most of us out in an instant inferno, leaving those who remain to the deadly rot of radioactive fallout.

There seems to me only one way to ensure that the second result is not achieved before the first. The nations of the world have to make a choice between a jealous refusal to yield any portion of their sovereignty or an acceptance of the principle of international arbitration of otherwise intractable conflicts. That choice, it seems to me, will determine whether we are headed ultimately toward the good life or Armageddon.

Bob Anschuetz is a retired college English teacher and industrial writer who remains actively committed to the progressive political values of economic fairness, social justice, and global community. In retirement, he has continued his work as a writer and manuscript copy editor, and also furthered a lifelong love of learning as a student of political science and philosophy, as a volunteer discussion-group leader on a variety of topics, and as a literacy tutor. Read other articles by Bob.