The Axis Of Evil Is It For Real?

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BROOKS KRAFT/GAMMA FOR TIME

When he clenched his fist and talked tough, was he threatening a strike?

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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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