The 'Axis of Evil' in Action

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When President Bush first used "Axis of Evil" to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea in his State of the Union address last January, the phrase instantly entered the lexicon of contemporary politics. For the President's fans, the words cleverly linked memories of World War II to Bush's belief that the contest with terrorists and the states who succor them is a war of moral clarity. For his foes, the term was cheap and illogical nonsense; there was no "axis," it was said, for the three nations posed different and discrete threats. As for branding them evil, that just proved once again that Bush was an ignorant cowboy who saw a multihued world in monochrome.

All things considered, the phrase sounds a lot better now than it did a year ago. In January, Bush said the three states were "seeking weapons of mass destruction" and posed a "grave and growing danger." On last week's evidence, he's right. Within a few days, the following things happened: Spanish and American forces detained and then released a cargo of North Korean Scud missiles hidden in a stateless vessel bound for Yemen. The shipment was legal, but given the tinderbox nature of Yemeni society, irresponsible. Then Pyongyang announced that it intended to restart work on nuclear reactors that had been closed down since a crisis with the U.S. in 1994; spent fuel from the reactors could be used to build nuclear bombs. One day later, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that recent satellite photographs of Iranian nuclear facilities showed that "Iran is actively working to develop nuclear-weapons capability." Tehran denied that it was engaged in a nuclear-weapons program and invited international inspections of its facilities. But Western diplomats in Tehran work on the assumption that Iran is five to seven years from having a nuclear bomb. To conclude the week, both U.S. and British officials claimed that, notwithstanding its 12,000-page report to the United Nations, Iraq was still dissembling on its programs for building weapons of mass destruction.

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Those who still hate Bush's rhetoric can take comfort from the fact that the three nations aren't really an axis; they have nothing like a formal alliance. (However, North Korea has exported versions of its Nodong missile to Iran and may have exchanged missile technology with Iraq.) And in a pinch, all three could justify their programs in terms that might not compel listeners to use the E word. Iran wants nukes (and has wanted them since the Shah was in power) partly because three of its neighbors — India, Russia, and Pakistan — have them. North Korea uses its weapons to blackmail the rest of the world into propping it up with food aid and energy. And who knows? Perhaps Saddam Hussein — we're being charitable here — wants weapons of mass destruction not for offensive purposes but to cow domestic rivals so that he can be assured of dying in his bed rather than swinging from a Baghdad lamppost.

But whether or not these programs are evil, they're mighty dangerous. What should the Bush Administration do about them? Whatever it can, without searching for a spurious consistency in its approach to widely differing situations. In Iraq, as we know, that means using the U.N. inspections regime, backed by the possible use of force, to insist on Baghdad's disarmament. In North Korea, where military action is too dangerous — given the proximity of Seoul to Northern artillery — it means persuading those who have protected Pyongyang in the past to isolate it now. Practically, that means talking to Beijing — Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was there last week — where the U.S. may find receptive ears. Sources tell TIME that the Chinese government is reassessing its past defense of North Korea. In October, for example, Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrote a memo damning North Korea's "diplomatic adventurism." Other senior Chinese officials are known to have discussed cutting energy and food aid to Kim Jong-Il's regime.

For two-thirds of the axis of evil, then, America is proactive. But in the case of Iran, U.S. policy is a mystery. In a Washington speech on Dec. 4, Richard Haass, director of policy planning in the State Department, noted "a widespread popular clamor for reform" in Iran, "which will hopefully result in greater democracy and greater openness." But the Administration has never spelled out the extent to which it supports the reformers in Iran, much less said how it might help them. It should do so now.