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The Axis Of Evil Is It For Real?

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What Bush is really saying when he talks tough about rogue states

For a moment last week it looked as if George W. Bush was about to declare war on three enemies at once. During his State of the Union speech, when the President asserted that Iran, Iraq and North Korea "constitute an axis of evil," he fired a shot that had been months in the making. Since the fall, Bush had been worrying that terrorists might get their hands on nuclear, biological or chemical weapons--and he wanted to warn rogue states not to help them do it. So in January the Defense Department drew up an assessment of the danger and channeled it back to the White House, where two speechwriters, Michael Gerson and David Frum, came up with what they thought was the perfect rallying cry.

Bush liked their phrase--"axis of evil"--from the start, catching the historical reference to the World War II alliance among Germany, Italy and Japan. So after 11 drafts circulated among his top advisers, he stood before Congress, the country and the world last Tuesday, clenched his fist and delivered the line with gusto, then made a vow. "I will not wait on events while the dangers gather," he said. "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." He drew a rousing cheer from the crowd; but as people caught their breath, they had to wonder precisely what Bush had in mind.

As those questions mounted the next day--allies wondered if Bush was moving toward some sort of unilateral, pre-emptive strike--the Administration scaled back its rhetoric. A senior White House official cautioned reporters not to read too much into the President's remarks. But on Thursday Bush and his team cranked it up again. The President warned Iran, Iraq and North Korea that they are on his "watch list" and that "they better get their house in order." National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice vowed that the U.S. would "use every tool at our disposal" to turn back the threat.

If the stop-and-go saber rattling was a sign of disagreement among senior Bush officials, there was no doubt that the hard-liners had won again. The "axis of evil" line was in many ways a repudiation of policies that the Administration's lonely moderate, Secretary of State Colin Powell, has championed since the early days of the current presidency. Powell's first major conflict with the White House came last year, when he expressed a desire to continue talks with North Korea begun during the Clinton years. Bush's rhetoric last week made that almost unthinkable for now. Powell was stone-faced during and after the speech, and the moderates at State were stunned. Most of the top officials there had not seen the tough language before it was delivered. Powell had seen it, but he is not a natural infighter, and in recent weeks he has lost ground on a series of debates with hard-liners like Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over Administration policy toward the Middle East (Powell wanted greater engagement) and treatment of al-Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay (Powell wanted to be more faithful to the Geneva Convention). But Bush himself had pushed for linking the three countries, and Powell appears not to have contested it. At his morning meeting on Thursday, he told senior staff members "not to take the edge off" Bush's message. On Friday at the World Economic Forum in New York City, he stuck to the party line.

As a phrase, "axis of evil" is misleading. There is no alliance among the three countries Bush chose to label. In fact, Iran and Iraq fought a war from 1980 to 1988 in which a million people died. Moreover, the connection between weapons of mass destruction and terrorism is not as straightforward as Bush made it seem. Administration experts admit that North Korea has been out of the terrorism business for more than a decade and that it remains on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism largely as a form of diplomatic pressure. Iraq's support for terrorism has centered mainly on groups that attack Iran.

The one area in which the three countries do cooperate is missiles, and it is there that the true logic of the speech may lie. Iran financed North Korea's missile program in exchange for shipments of the finished product. Administration officials claim that Iraq has bought missile equipment from North Korea, one of the most prolific of blatant weapons producers. But terrorists have little interest in missiles--they would rather get their hands on a small nuclear or biological device that could be smuggled into the U.S. Critics say Bush blurred the two threats--terrorism and missile attacks--with an eye to his $200 billion missile-defense program. Linking the two, says Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution, "gives you a rationale for building missile defense that terrorism alone does not."

Even if they are not an axis, Iran, Iraq and North Korea pose real threats. Tehran may have helped senior Taliban and al-Qaeda members escape from Afghanistan. All three are trying to obtain nuclear weapons and have--or have had--chemical and biological weapons stockpiles; any of them could provide a weapon of mass destruction to a terrorist if one came shopping. For that reason, the Administration argues, it must be prepared to act pre-emptively--and put the bad guys on warning. A senior Administration official says the message is, "You have a choice. That doesn't mean military action is imminent, but it does mean the President is serious about the campaign."

The response from the so-called axis, not surprisingly, was hostile. Iran's religious leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, joining Bush in a name-calling standoff, said it is the U.S. that is "evil." North Korea said the speech was "little short of declaring war." And Iraq said, "Such threats do not scare us."

America's closest allies offered a muted response while they tried to figure out what would come next. But even top Bush aides could not agree on that. Some said relations with the axis states would actually be helped by the speech. "We do have this willingness to engage if North Korea is prepared to get serious," an official said Friday. But others crowed that engagement was dead. "How are you going to negotiate with a member of the axis of evil?" said a Bush hard-liner.

That has been the question for years, as one Administration after another has tried to deal with the problems posed by Iran, Iraq and North Korea. All three have at times survived as much isolation as the rest of the world could muster and still succeeded in stockpiling their weapons. And while Western diplomacy has brought somewhat better behavior--increased contact with Iran, easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula--it has not diminished each country's fervent search for weapons of mass destruction. Pentagon brass still wince at the memory of Bill Clinton's 1998 speech warning that the world must come up with "a genuine solution" to the Saddam problem and "not simply one that glosses over" it. Bush may not be glossing over the problem, but a genuine solution will require more than tough talk.



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Cover Date: February 11, 2002

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