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    A Times Editorial

    An 'axis of evil'?

    The war against terrorism won't end in Afghanistan, but President Bush may have complicated matters with language linking Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 3, 2002

    President Bush says he recently read a new biography of Theodore Roosevelt. He must have skipped the passage in which Roosevelt advised his friend Henry Sprague to "speak softly and carry a big stick."

    In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Bush used strikingly broad and bellicose language in labeling the governments of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil." By using words intended to evoke images of our World War II enemies, the president left the vivid impression that one or more of those countries could be the next targets in an expanded war against terrorism.

    All Americans should support the Bush administration's efforts to prevent the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by forces that are hostile to the United States. All three of the governments mentioned by the president are at various stages in the process of developing chemical, biological and/or nuclear weapons that eventually could threaten us and our allies. However, the president's saber-rattling could complicate efforts already underway to reduce the threats posed by those and other governments.

    At best, the president's words created a false impression. Iran, Iraq and North Korea are not part of any "axis," and there is no hard evidence that any of those governments aided al-Qaida in planning the Sept. 11 attacks. Iran and Iraq are historic enemies that spent most of the 1980s mired in an especially savage war. (Iran also was hostile to Afghanistan's Taliban regime.) The strange, insular government of North Korea has very little to do with Iran, Iraq or any other country. And while the governments of Iraq and North Korea are oppressive dictatorships that have taken their countries backwards, the political and social reality in Iran is much more complex. Democratically elected reformers in Iran are engaged in an evolving power struggle with hard-line religious leaders who have been losing public support. President Bush's speech cannot have helped the reformers who had been making discreet efforts to improve relations with the United States -- including providing some help to us in the war in Afghanistan.

    The president's speech may have created other hurdles for those involved in diplomatic initiatives to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. For example, our allies in South Korea and Japan were dismayed that the speech came while they were working to expand negotiations aimed at opening North Korea's military operations to greater outside inspection in return for food supplies and other economic aid. The prospect of aid recently has helped to persuade North Korea to refrain from testing the long-range missiles that most concern Washington.

    Iraq is a more difficult case. Saddam Hussein has used chemical weapons against his own people, and he expelled the international inspectors who curbed Iraq's ability to develop weapons of mass destruction after the Persian Gulf war. Controlling Hussein is a strategic priority for the United States. However, there is great debate within the Bush administration and among our allies as to how that task can best be accomplished. No one should be under any illusion that toppling Hussein would be as simple as toppling the Taliban. Nor should Americans underestimate the broader complications that all-out war against Iraq could create for us in the Islamic world.

    If President Bush's real intention Tuesday night was to put potential adversaries on notice, he accomplished his goal. Pyongyang and Baghdad should know that this would be a dangerous moment to provoke the United States. And Tehran's divided leaders should understand that secret efforts to arm the Palestinians or destabilize western Afghanistan could destroy any hope for closer relations with Washington.

    Still, such warnings can be delivered quietly, in a way that may get results at no military cost. In a war against modern terrorism that threatens our very survival, no military option should be off the table. But that war can't be won alone, and it can't be won by making threats that we may not be prepared to back up. Teddy Roosevelt understood that. The coming weeks will show whether George W. Bush has learned that lesson, too.

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