Bush hints he's ready to cripple `evil axis'

Harsh talk in speech suggests next targets

January 31, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's description of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil" put those countries - and America's allies - on notice that he is determined to blunt the danger they pose, possibly with military force, officials said yesterday.

The administration gave no sign that Bush has settled on a specific plan of action - military or diplomatic - to force the three regimes to abandon their chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs and their links to a sprawling underworld of terror.

"The president is not going to indicate to them what he is going to do," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, but he "will be deliberative in anything he does."

Bush's sharp words sent a note of urgency throughout the government.

"You'll see an energetic shift in emphasis and in direction," said Richard Perle, a former Pentagon official who is on the advisory Defense Policy Board.

Speaking about the three nations in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Bush said, "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger."

The president's speech expanded the war on terror, merging the threat posed by international terrorist networks with the danger of three nations that have sought to acquire weapons of mass destruction and that have long been hostile to the United States and its key allies.

Not only do Iraq, Iran and North Korea threaten their neighbors and U.S. forces, the president said, but each also could arm terrorist groups, vastly escalating the threat.

"The world has to understand the potential for not thousands of people to be killed, but for tens of thousands of people to be killed," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday.

Bush's words carried an echo of Ronald Reagan's 1983 speech labeling the former Soviet Union an "evil empire" - a term that set the tone for his administration's dealings with the Kremlin until the emergence of a reformist leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Iraq, Iran and North Korea don't resemble the Axis powers of World War II, as Germany, Japan and Italy were known when they joined together. North Korea has supplied weapons technology to Iran, but Iran and Iraq fought a nearly decade-long war against each other and still view each other with deep suspicion.

The nations' similarities are perhaps outweighed by their differences.

North Korea is an isolationist, impoverished Stalinist regime with few sources of income other than the export of weapons.

Iran is a partially democratic Islamic state whose hard-line clerics hold ultimate power.

Iraq has a repressive, secular dictatorship ruling over a diverse population of Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Kurds. Iraq and Iran are major oil exporters.

Lumping the three together, as Bush did, might be counterproductive, said Anthony Cordesman, a national security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The "axis" term "may play well inside the U.S., but it will play very badly indeed outside it," he said.

Bush has little support among allies for taking military action against Iraq and "absolutely no allies for dealing with Iran except Israel," Cordesman said. Even U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran have caused a rift with Europe.

The president's tough language Tuesday night will make it "far harder to get people mobilized to deal with any one country," he said.

Iran's hard-liners will have an excuse to view the United States as hostile and might be less likely to sit passively if the United States attacks Iraq, he said.

Until recently, the United States treated the three nations differently.

Iraq is the target of stiff United Nations-imposed economic sanctions and recurrent air strikes by U.S. and British forces policing "no-fly zones" in the northern and southern portions of the country.

Implementation of a deal with North Korea stalled when the Bush administration took office and because, administration officials say, Pyongyang refuses to divulge the full extent of its nuclear weapons program. But the United States is willing to support in principle the construction of a costly civilian nuclear reactor and to enter talks aimed at curbing North Korea's export of missile technology.

As the Bush administration launched its war on Afghanistan, officials praised neighboring Iran for its cooperation. In recent weeks, however, Iran caused alarm in Washington by trying to carve out a sphere of influence in Afghanistan just as a new pro-Western government began to take shape.

Iran also angered the Bush administration by trying to smuggle a boatload of sophisticated weapons to the Palestinian Authority.

Of the three countries, Iraq appears to be the most likely target of eventual military action; a drumbeat for war has been building for months on Capitol Hill and among hard-liners in Washington think tanks. Bush has warned Saddam Hussein that he will "find out" the consequences of refusing to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country.

Getting each country to abandon weapons of mass destruction without taking military action will require strong cooperation from Russia. A former ally of North Korea, Russia has sold weapons and allowed smuggling of dangerous technology to Iran and has been Iraq's strongest ally on the U.N. Security Council, officials say.

Emergence of Russian cooperation has been slow. "There's still a lot of [Russian] behavior we can't accept," a senior administration official said.

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