When he left Washington last Saturday, the world was still reverberating to his unexpected State of the Union accusation that because of their provocative development of weapons of mass destruction, Iraq, Iran and North Korea had formed an "axis of evil."
Even after detailed briefings by the White House, it was not quite clear why he chose those words or those countries.
Evil is a popular word for President Bush. There are evildoers and evil terrorists. It is a concept arising from the president's often-avowed Christian faith, ruling out the chance that the North Korean leaders simply got in with a bad crowd, or were deprived as youths and developed into bad actors.
The world is divided for Bush into good and evil, and though there is redemption as in Kim Jong Il, the Korean strongman who Bush said Wednesday might be a man he could negotiate with if he has a good heart, Saddam Hussein appears to be beyond saving.
Evil has no real geopolitical meaning. The Chinese have developed weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles and, according to the CIA, supplied weapons technology to North Korea, Libya, Iran and Pakistan, and won't abide by the non-proliferation treaty they signed in 2000. They also persecute Christians and political dissidents and often detain American citizens, but Bush has not called them evil.
President Kim Dae-Jung, South Korea's president, may have had it right when he said the "axis of evil" reminded him of President Ronald Reagan's calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire." It became a rallying cry and helped Reagan round up support for a massive military buildup against a nation that Americans later discovered was a far more a hollow power than advertised.
Axis, too, is not a precise term; it is a newspaper headline writer's word. One story has it that Italian strongman Benito Mussolini once idly said that there was an "axis" between his fascist Rome and Hitler's Nazi Germany, and headline writers needing a four-letter word to sum up the enemy in World War II leapt at "axis," adding in Japan and using it throughout the war, often linked with "powers."
By last week, several European leaders had angered Bush by their attacks on "axis of evil," among them the French foreign minister. In Japan, Bush explained instructively to his European critics that "people who love freedom understand that we cannot allow nations that aren't transparent, nations with a terrible history, nations that are so dictatorial they're willing to starve their people; we can't allow them to mate up with terrorist organizations." His remarks implied that if you didn't understand this, you were either dense or didn't love freedom.
Bush suggested reporters talk to Secretary of State Colin Powell about what he had called European detractors. Powell said he thought the Europeans were "swooning," overreacting to Bush by suggesting the United States was in "a state of war." But Powell also said that when you a have a president who is as plainspoken as Bush, it takes time to explain to foreign leaders what he means. This suggested that if there is a policy behind, "axis of evil" it is evolving.
It also meant that world leaders themselves get to decide what Bush means. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, for instance, reassured reporters that Bush "has been very calm and cautious vis-à-vis Iraq, Iran and North Korea. ... He will resort to all possible means to fight terrorism. And I believe this resolve was behind the expression, 'axis of evil.'"
Since he arrived in Asia, Bush has never publicly repeated the words "axis of evil." He has expanded its definition in Iraq's and North Korea's case to be nations that not only might give weapons to terrorists, but to leaders that have deprived their own people to support an effort to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
Bush and his aides are largely silent about Iran. Iran has what one senior administration official this week called a "bifurcated" government, with strong moderates arrayed against strong hardliners. This official said the United States has asked Japan and several other unnamed "friends" of Washington to try to find out which Iran is on top, the one allegedly backing Palestinian terrorist groups and building weapons of mass destruction, or the Iran that detained some 150 fleeing Taliban and al Qaida members and supported the U.S. war against the Taliban.
That's the trouble with defining the world by good and evil. The Russians -- the old Evil Empire reborn -- back Iran, buy oil from Iraq and secretly built the Northern Alliance that allowed the United States to defeat the Taliban.
China, the fastest-growing economy in the world and the biggest potential market, taught North Korea a lot of what it knows about missiles. Bush went right to the Demilitarized Zone in Korea to challenge the North to end the armed division of the Korean people, but ended up reassuring the Democratic People's Republic of Korea that the United States is a peaceful nation and he had no plans to invade the country.
Then it was onto Beijing, where he assured President Jiang Zemin that he was not going to invade Iraq without keeping China informed and that all the "rumors" to the contrary were, as his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice explained, "exactly that --rumors."
Jiang said two interesting things to reporters after meeting with Bush. He said international disputes should be dealt with peacefully and that China, the most populous nation on earth, was not going to bully other nations. Did he think Bush is a bully?
At week's end, the world has heard a lot more about "axis of evil," but does it understand more?
Rice told reporters in Beijing Thursday something very similar to what Powell said several days earlier. "The president is somebody who speaks with a kind of clarity, moral clarity," and clearly meant in his State of the Union address to call attention to "dangerous regimes that are closed, seeking dangerous weapons."
If Bush speaks with such clarity, why nearly a month after the State of the Union is his administration trying to explain what he really meant?