Back in 2002, in his first full-fledged State of the Union address, President George W. Bush called Iraq, Iran, and North Korea a terror-sponsoring "axis of evil."
A little more than a year later, the U.S. invaded Iraq, a decision whose consequences are still being felt today. A change in presidents in the U.S. and Iran, meanwhile, eventually led to a five-nation deal on Iran's nuclear program, averting military action for the time being. The North Korean regime has continued its nuclear brinkmanship.
In 2018, the axis of evil is making a comeback. President Trump spent a significant portion of his State of the Union last night on North Korea. (Vox.com called it the "scariest part" because it sounded the way Bush used to talk about Iraq.)
Trump invited the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student thrown into a North Korean jail and returned to the U.S. in a vegetative state. He also invited a North Korean defector who helps other victims of the regime escape to freedom. (Sadly but unsurprisingly, Trump didn't talk about America's role in welcoming such refugees.)
Trump also engaged in a bit of fearmongering, claiming that North Korea's "reckless pursuit" of nuclear missiles "could very soon threaten our homeland" but insisting his administration was "waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening."
"Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation," the president continued. "I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position."
Trump didn't elaborate on those past mistakes. Despite his sometimes bombastic rhetoric toward Kim Jong Un, he and his administration have tried to engage China and South Korea in a multilateral solution. Fearmongering could threaten that progress.
On Iran, on the other hand, Trump has been openly hostile to the nuclear deal that de-escalated tensions. For now, nevertheless, he has kept the agreement in place. If he does withdraw, that wouldn't completely dismantle the deal, since it also involves the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia. That didn't stop Trump from calling on Congress last night to "address the fundamental flaws in the terrible Iran nuclear deal."
And Iraq? U.S. troops returned there following a three-year break after the official end of the Iraq War, this time to fight ISIS. While claiming "almost 100 percent of the territory" once held by ISIS had been liberated, Trump insisted U.S. troops would remain in Iraq and Syria until "ISIS is defeated."
Trump also boasted of "tough sanctions" imposed on Cuba and Venezuela. Those dictatorships, while brutal, pose even less of a threat to the U.S. than North Korea or Iran. Meanwhile, other dictatorships, like those in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, continue to be coddled by Washington.
Such schizophrenia can make it difficult for other international actors to anticipate what the U.S. will do, and Trump's love of confrontational rhetoric can make it hard to de-escalate tensions. A motivated president can always find countries to fit into an "axis of evil."