Tough Talking Bush Rattles Friend and Foe

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US President George W. Bush speaks at a GOP retreat

Talk about "setting the East ablaze." President Bush has repeated his lectern-thumping warnings to the three states he has nicknamed the "Evil Axis." And the targets of his ire — Iran, Iraq and North Korea — have started firing back insults, North Korea raising the rhetorical stakes by accusing the Bush administration of "moral leprosy." But what has U.S. allies in east Asia a little more anxious is the warning by the notoriously skittish regime in Pyongyang that Bush's accusations were "little short of declaring a war" and that "the option to 'strike' impudently advocated by the U.S. is not its monopoly." (Translation: Stop talking crazy or we'll start acting crazy.)

The testosterone talk from the White House may be grist to the mill of President Bush's domestic popularity, but it's getting U.S. allies abroad a little nervous. But despite anxious calls to Washington for clarification after the State of the Union address, President Bush delivered a further salvo during an address on Thursday: "People say, what does (the "evil axis" warning) mean? It means they better get their house in order, is what it means. It means they better respect the rule of law. It means they better not try to terrorize America and our friends and allies, or the justice of this nation will be served on them as well. If you're one of these nations that develops weapons of mass destruction, and you're likely to team up with a terrorist group, or you're now sponsoring terror, or you don't hold the values we hold dear true to your heart, then you, too, are on our watch list."

President Bush's explanation won't be particularly reassuring to nervous allies. Elevating to a bookable offense the failure to "hold the values we hold dear true to your heart" may simply have been an unfortunate rhetorical slip on the President's part, but beyond these shores it's read as an inclination to use the war on terror to remake the world order to America's taste. Not surprisingly, as the President bangs the lectern at home and talks of "serving justice" upon those dubbed "evil," his diplomatic elves are out there assuring allies that his speech represents no significant policy shift and that the U.S. will be conducting business as usual.

In Seoul, for example, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Thomas Hubbard rushed to assure his anxious hosts that the U.S. remains "eager to have pragmatic and straightforward talks with North Korea." He told South Koreans that the North had been cited not because of any terrorist connections, but out of concern over its weapons of mass destruction. But Washington and Seoul remain divided over how to deal with the Stalinist regime in the North. South Korean officials said Thursday that the U.S. and Seoul would "offer a series of incentives to the North in order to bring it to the negotiating table.'' But Hubbard appeared to suggest that the U.S. believed in straight talking rather than concessions. President Bush visits later this month, and the Koreans are currently in Washington trying to ascertain the administration's intentions.

The rapid, low-cost military victory in Afghanistan has clearly emboldened the Bush administration to more aggressively tackle some of the strategic priorities it identified on taking office. That meant nobody was particularly surprised at the President's tilt at Iraq, since "regime change" in Baghdad has long been identified as an administration goal. Despite the intent, however, Washington has not yet identified a mechanism for achieving that goal at low cost to the U.S. and to regional stability.

But the inclusion of Iran in his "axis of evil" raised eyebrows and concerns. European anxiety was plain in the cautionary statement by NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson on Friday that the U.S. would have to provide evidence linking the three states to the September 11 attack to justify any military action against them. The Europeans are concerned that Washington's new rhetoric could have a negative impact on the power struggle in Iran between elected reformists and appointed hard-line clerics.

The Europeans, and even the U.S. had been encouraged by the reformists efforts to seek dialogue with the West and curb terrorism — Tehran condemned the September 11 attacks, offered facilities for U.S. search-and-rescue missions in western Afghanistan, and cooperated in efforts to forge the new interim government in Kabul. But the Bush administration is concerned that more hard-line elements may be continuing to support groups on Washington list of terrorist organizations, and even possibly have allowed members of al Qaeda to transit through Iran while fleeing Afghanistan. And about the danger of Iran acquiring long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. The immediate impact of the State of the Union speech in Tehran, however, has been to force hard-liners and reformers to circle the wagons. And analysts fear that any narrowing of differences between the two camps will occur at the expense of the reformists.

Despite the tough talk, the Bush administration is going out of its way reassure anxious allies that diplomacy and economic and political pressure remain its preferred methods of dealing even with those now dubbed "evil." The allies are concerned the noisier atmospherics could harden attitudes in those troublesome capitals, and that rhetoric may have a tendency to create its own momentum.