Analysis

U.S. Policy on 'Axis of Evil' Suffers Spate Of Setbacks

In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush targeted Iran, Iraq and North Korea as
In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush targeted Iran, Iraq and North Korea as "the axis of evil." The speechwriter who came up with the phrase now says that "the present course cannot be followed forever." (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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By Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 17, 2005

President Bush's campaign against what he once termed the "axis of evil" has suffered reverses on all three fronts in recent days that underscore the profound challenges confronting him 3 1/2 years after he vowed to take action.

First, multilateral talks orchestrated by the United States to pressure North Korea to give up nuclear weapons adjourned last week after 13 days without agreement. Then Iran restarted its program to convert uranium, in defiance of the United States and Europe. Finally, negotiators in Iraq failed to draft a new constitution by Monday's deadline amid an unrelenting guerrilla war against U.S. forces.

None of these developments may be fatal to Bush's policy goals, but the quick succession of setbacks has left his national security team privately discouraged and searching for answers. Whereas Bush in his first term vowed to reinvent foreign policy with a new doctrine of military preemption to deal with rogue states, he has largely dropped such talk since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Instead, he has favored diplomacy with Tehran and Pyongyang and nation-building with Baghdad -- yet the old-fashioned improvisation has yielded similarly murky results.

Administration officials publicly have put the best face on the situation, finding hope in the fact that Iraq's sectarian leaders remain at the negotiating table and that neither Iran nor North Korea has ruled out further talks. Unlike in Iraq two years ago, U.S. officials note, this time they are working more or less in tandem with European and Asian allies.

"These are difficult issues," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said in an interview last week after the Iran and North Korea setbacks. "They're going to take some time. But the main thing is to keep the international community focused."

Iran's new hard-line president has said he has ideas to discuss with European Union powers Britain, Germany and France -- the "E.U. Three" nations that have taken the lead in dealing with Tehran -- and his new national security chief said yesterday that negotiations will continue. The six-party talks involving North Korea and the United States along with China, Japan, South Korea and Russia are due to resume in Beijing the week of Aug. 29.

Seeking cause for optimism, Hadley noted that the latest round of talks on North Korea ended a 13-month boycott by Pyongyang. "They were basically testing us to see if they could split the [other] five . . . and they failed," Hadley said. "Similarly now, the Iranians are trying to test the E.U. Three to see if they can split them."

Yet in the broader picture, the fitful pace of talks in both cases belies the urgency Bush has expressed in the past, and some Bush supporters believe the time has come for a more robust approach.

"The present course cannot be followed forever," said David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter who helped coin the "axis of evil" phrase in the 2002 State of the Union address to target countries believed to be developing weapons of mass destruction. "The president made his statement -- that he will not permit that -- so now he has to find a course of action. In Iraq, the president said he will see the job through. The job's not through, and we'll see if he'll follow through on that."

Frum said he sometimes worries that Bush has become a captive of a status quo bureaucracy. "The Bush administration since 9/11 has been again and again fighting to escape gravity, fighting to escape the weight of the way things have always been done," he said. "Things are now coming to a decision point, and we'll know soon."

The unexpected difficulties endured in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003 have colored the broader efforts against the "axis of evil" states. Tehran and Pyongyang have felt freer to flout American pressure, secure in the knowledge that the U.S. military is tied down in Iraq, analysts said.

"The situation in Iraq is sufficiently sober [that] I think this has given the Iranians a boost of confidence that they didn't have two years ago," said Geoffrey Kemp, a Reagan administration national security official who is now a scholar at the Nixon Center. "They're not scared of us as they once were."


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