Evil Axis Watch

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Iraqi President Saddam Hussein

Massaging the Message

You can't compromise with evil. Or can you? Bush administration officials appear to be struggling to fine-tune the signal sent by the President's denunciation of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "evil axis." His State of the Union speech left friend and foe in a mild state of panic, trying to figure out whether the U.S. planned to turn the war on terrorism into World War III. That set the administration's spin cycle on "soothe" last week.

Even then, there was clear concern to avoid appearing to soften the message. After all, the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan had generated credibility and momentum behind words emanating from the White House — and that in itself added to the pressure on the "evil axis" regimes. So, by the end of last week, Bush was thumping the lectern again and warning the "evil" trio to get with the program or else. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell was echoing his boss's message, and ordering the State Department not to tone it down for anxious allies.

This week, Powell is gently tapping the brakes lest anyone think the fighting talk is a prelude to military action. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday, Powell stressed that the U.S. remains willing to talk to North Korea and Iran. He nonetheless defended the "evil axis" epithet — "there is no reason for us not to identify them for what they are: regimes that are inherently evil." Pressed on the obvious echo of President Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" label for the Soviet Union, Powell said simply "the fact of the matter is Ronald Reagan was right." And, of course, dubbing it "evil" didn't stop Reagan negotiating with the Soviets.

Iraq sets a trap

Is Saddam Hussein more evil than his axis partners, or is he just more tactically adept? Iraq was the notable exclusion from Secretary Powell's offer to negotiate with the "evil" states, and it's not hard to see why: The Hussein regime has been working hard for international sympathy for the past few weeks, offering to talk about allowing the U.N. weapons inspectors it kicked out in 1999 to return. Baghdad's maneuvering puts the Bush administration in a delicate position, precisely because none of the U.S. allies from Gulf War I have any appetite for a sequel. By reopening prospects for a diplomatic solution, Saddam can make it even more difficult for the U.S. to convince the already-skeptical Arabs and Europeans of the need for military action.

Iran: The Reagan playbook

President Bush's rhetorical tilt at Iran raised the most eyebrows among U.S. allies precisely because it forced Tehran's elected moderates to circle the wagons along with the hard-liners. European and U.S. strategy until now has been to encourage the movement toward democratization, moderation and engagement with the West led by President Mohammed Khatami. More exasperated Europeans (and the Iranian moderates) have even accused the U.S. of allowing its Iran policy to be determined primarily by Israel, which identifies Tehran as its most dangerous long-term threat.

But the Bush team's take on Iran may be more influenced by President Reagan's handling of the Gorbachev-era Soviet Union. There, too, a promising reformer struggled against the potent forces of entrenched hard-liners. And the Reaganites insisted that despite the best intentions of the reformist Gorbachev, unrelenting pressure was the only way to ultimately break the power of the regime in Moscow. At the same time, though, despite its bellicose rhetoric, the Reagan administration continued to engage the Soviets on arms control and other flash-point issues. The U.S. remains unlikely to even consider going to war with Iran. But its engagement with the reform process may be guided by Reagan's hardball approach to the Soviets.

North Korea: Seoul-searching for Bush

Pyongyang continues to rattle its own sabers in response to President Bush's speech, and South Koreans express mounting alarm over the Bush administration's chilling of the warm-and-fuzzy atmospherics of North-South relations, but Washington remains unlikely to seek military confrontation on the Korean peninsula. And that means dialogue. But what exactly to talk about?

President Bush visits South Korea later this month for talks aimed at bridging the gap between Washington and Seoul over how to handle the North. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's 'Sunshine Policy' has seen important, if limited breakthroughs in the relations between the two Koreas, and Seoul has looked to the Bush administration to continue the Clinton-era policies of negotiation and engagement with the hermit communist regime in Pyongyang. But the Bush team has balked at continuing the Clinton policy, preferring a more aggressive focus on North Korea's programs to build weapons of mass destruction. U.S. diplomats are continuing to assure their South Korean colleagues that Washington supports Seoul's policy of engagement with the North, and that President Bush's rhetoric is designed primarily to put Pyongyang on watch over its missile exports.