It came and went in a flash and now it’s long forgotten, buried in the rubble heap of history. But maybe, given recent events, a little excavation is in order. After all, as the author ofConstantine’s Sword, James Carroll, wrote in 2004, looking back on the 9/11 moment, “A few days after the assault... [s]peaking spontaneously, without the aid of advisers or speechwriters, [George W. Bush] put a word on the new American purpose that both shaped it and gave it meaning. ‘This crusade,’ he said, ‘this war on terrorism.’"
It was the presidential equivalent of a Freudian slip, the sort that reveals one’s deepest preconceptions. After all, there was only one set of “crusades” and Medieval Christendom launched them against Islamic "infidels" of the Middle East. There has been no such presidential slip since.
When, in January 2002, for example, George W. Bush gave his State of the Union address, his speechwriter David Frum, who liked to speak of the “stinking bowl” of the Arab world, ditched the very thought that there might be a crusade against Islam in America. Instead, he and an associate came up with a phrase that hinted at a more ecumenical set of enemies. In imitation of Germany, Japan, and Italy, the “Axis powers” of World War II, he puffed up three rickety regional regimes -- Iraq, Iran, and North Korea -- into a looming “axis of evil.” (“Seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.”) It may have been farfetched to compare Iraq’s megalomanic autocrat Saddam Hussein, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il to Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, but it proved adequate for the needs of that moment.
How, after all, could the United States be “at war with Islam,” when the distinctly non-Muslim North Korea was on board the SS Axis of Evil? Still, when you look back on the fate of that “axis,” something strange should jump out at you. After all, the Bush administration knocked off Saddam over a non-existent Iraqi nuclear and WMD program which, in the pre-invasion months, its officials insisted might put mushroom clouds over American cities and leave Iraqi drones spraying chemical and biological poisons over East Coast cities. Since then, in conjunction with Israel, both the Bush and Obama administrations have gone after Iran’s nuclear program, including rounds of cyber warfare, a massive build-up of forces in the Persian Gulf region, threats of war, sanctions, Israeli assassinations of nuclear scientists, and so on, and yet Iran, too, has no nuclear weapon and no one claims it does, nor do mostexperts think it's even close.
As it turned out, only the one non-Islamic country in that axis of evil actually built and testeda perfectly real nuclear weapon in those years. And the response seems curiously instructive: though it announced its first successful test in 2006 and the actual building of a bomb in 2009, no war threats ensued, no invasion occurred, no cyber-attacks were launched, no giant military build up in the region occurred. In the end, next to nothing happened. In fact, when you think about it, since 2001, just about every war-like act by Washington, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, or elsewhere, has been directed at a Muslim country or at Muslims in a county. More