In the endlessly "nuanced" world of international diplomacy, few things are more unwelcome than the unvarnished truth, as President Bush has discovered ever since he first labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "axis of evil."
Critics denounce the phrase as "simplistic." Some simply see no evil, ignoring the fact that all three countries are ruled by repressive totalitarian regimes hostile to the United States - ones that seek nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them. All three also have a long record of supporting terrorism.
This dangerous combination of terrorist regimes building weapons of mass destruction is a prospect that no American president can afford to take lightly in a post-Sept. 11, 2001 world.
Other critics see no axis, glossing over the close military cooperation between North Korea and Iran - which has purchased North Korean missiles and mini-submarines - and the looser cooperation between North Korea and Iraq, which is suspected of buying tunneling equipment and exchanging missile technology with Pyongyang.
True, Iran and Iraq once fought a bloody war, but both now seek to drive American influence from the Middle East. Both have given sanctuary to al-Qaeda terrorists who fled from Afghanistan. They are united by their hostility to the United States, as Germany and Japan once were. Those two members of the original Axis distrusted one another, but they found enough in common to fight against the United States during World War II.
After eight years of the Clinton administration's dissembling and feckless attempts to come to terms with the three dictatorships, Bush's blunt honesty is refreshing and long overdue. The first step in addressing a problem is to define it. We cannot win the war on terrorism as long as these regimes remain in power, building the ultimate terrorist weapons.
Yes, Bush's rhetoric is provocative. The truth can be provocative, and often it hurts. But the president used the phrase "axis of evil" in last year's State of the Union speech to alert Americans to impending dangers, not to suggest a one-size-fits-all foreign policy. Since then, the Bush administration has worked to craft policies that are individually tailored to address the discrete threats posed by the three regimes.
Ronald Reagan also was criticized for being provocative when he called the Soviet Union an "evil empire." But post-communist leaders of the former Soviet bloc later praised his language, noting that it heartened opposition forces.
In the not-so-distant future, you can bet that free Iraqis, Iranians and Koreans will praise Bush's speech - if the United States helps to liberate them from the axis of evil.
James A. Phillips is a research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
First appeared on USA Today