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 31/2 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."
In the interval, North Korea by its own account has built several nuclear devices. How much progress Iran may have made, if any, is less clear. Iran denies pursuing weapons, though in the past it hid nuclear development efforts that it attributed to civilian purposes. A recent U.S. intelligence estimate concluded that the theocratic state is as long as 10 years away from making the key ingredient for nuclear weapons.
One U.S. official who specializes in nuclear issues laughed when asked to score the administration's success in handling the three countries. "I'm tempted to say we're 1-2," he said, "but I think that wouldn't be honest."
Robert J. Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, said North Korea and Iran "show the difficulty in stopping determined proliferators without using force." He added: "We are not prepared to use military options in either place, but we also have not come up with a combination of incentives and disincentives to get the job done."
After the saber-rattling rhetoric of the first term, Kemp credits the new Bush team with being "remarkably restrained" on North Korea and Iran. "At least now we're seen as a cooperative multilateral player and not thumbing our nose at the rest of the world," he said.
Yet by seeking international consensus, Bush has made his policy dependent on other countries in a way he has been loath to do. The administration was blindsided by recent South Korean comments supporting civilian nuclear energy for the North. And the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week adopted only a mild resolution calling on Iran to turn off its uranium-conversion facility, with no threat of consequences.
"Obviously, Iran is ahead for the moment and they had a much better week," one disappointed senior European official said. "But I don't think anybody on our side would say we've lost this yet."
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of sensitive diplomacy, said they still could win a consensus to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
But the outcome of last week's IAEA meeting "just shows how much more capital we have to put into this," one official said. The official said the issue, while a high priority, has been overshadowed within the administration. "There are a limited number of hours in the day and people are devoting those to the debacle in Iraq."
For all the focus on Iraq, the problems there are even more complex. The administration has tried without success to pressure fractious Iraqi leaders to write a governing document. The deadlock led Iraqis to extend their deadline to Monday, as U.S. officials scramble to help find a consensus.
From the beginning, the White House has said it would employ different strategies for each member of the axis. In the case of North Korea, it has refused one-on-one negotiations but agreed to sit down with Pyongyang's representatives in the context of multiparty talks. Bush refuses to talk with Iran at all, although he has supported the European outreach to Tehran. Some Republicans in Congress are starting to quietly urge the administration to communicate with Iran directly, as it has with North Korea.
The disparity in strategies has grown more evident. At a news conference last week, Bush was asked why it might be acceptable for Iran to develop civilian nuclear power but not North Korea. Bush suggested that Tehran has been more honest.
"North Korea is in a different situation," he said, because "they didn't tell the truth when it came to their enrichment programs." The statement was a striking shift in tone for a president who has regularly accused Iran of hiding weapons programs.
As the conflict drags on, some analysts predict that resolution will elude the president who vowed not to wait nearly a full term ago.
"I think in five years we'll be in the same stalemate we are now at best," said Clifford Kupchan, who studies Iran at the Eurasia Group. "Neither Pyongyang nor Tehran wants to pick a fight with the 800-pound gorilla because they'll lose. On the other hand, the 800-pound gorilla doesn't have a lot of options right now, either."