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Does 'Axis of Evil' Have Practical Effect on International Landscape?


North Korea, which recently conducted an underground nuclear test, and Iran, which is accused of harboring nuclear weapons ambitions are the remaining governments in what President Bush once labeled the "axis of evil." What practical effect did that designation have on the international landscape?

In January 2002, President Bush stepped before Congress to utter what some consider the most memorable, and, some would argue, among the most controversial words of his presidency.

"North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens," Mr. Bush says. "Iran aggressively pursues these weapons, and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian peoples' hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility towards America and support terror. States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world."

The "axis of evil" phrase was interpreted in many quarters as a call for "regime change" in Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Some analysts say the presidential rhetoric, coupled with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and ouster of Saddam Hussein, fueled, rather than deterred the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

Ken Katzman, a Middle East policy analyst at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, says the reverberations from that phrase have been enormous.

"What goes through my mind is the degree to which the so-called 'axis of evil' has come back to haunt the United States," Katzman says. "The so-called 'axis of evil' is looming larger than it did when that speech was given. And, maybe, part of it is because some of these states, particularly Iran and North Korea, felt that, if they're going to be designated part of an 'axis of evil,' that may reflect an aggressive U.S. intention, and, maybe, we (they) need to speed up our programs."

North Korea's nuclear program was already well advanced, and Pyongyang had bragged about having a nuclear weapons capability. James Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to China and South Korea, says the "axis of evil" designation and the invasion of Iraq changed nothing, and just gave North Korea a pretext.

"It gave the North Koreans a cause to say that the Americans invaded Iraq, 'therefore, they will invade us, therefore we need the nukes.' I can't comment on Iran," Lilley says. "But, I will say, the North Koreans have used this relentlessly, pounded it home, 'axis of evil, axis of evil, axis of evil. You called us a dirty name. You have insulted the pride of the great North Korean people. It's on your back, America. If you had not have done this, maybe we would not have blown off the nukes.' Come on. They've been trying to build these nukes for about 30 years."

James Dobbins, head of the RAND Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center, agrees that North Korea was emboldened by U.S. rhetoric and action. But, he adds, that Iran was at first more cautious, then speeded up its efforts and toughened its negotiating stance.

"In the North Korean case, it clearly didn't slow them down," Dobbins says. "It simply either reconfirmed them in their course of action, or led them to accelerate their efforts. In the Iranian case, I think that it probably initially made them more cautious when it appeared that we might succeed in establishing a democratic and pro-Western Iraq. And, then, when it was clear that we were not going to succeed, it emboldened them."

Iran continues to deny it wants nuclear arms, saying it only seeks peaceful nuclear energy. But the United States and other U.N. Security Council members seek to impose sanctions on Iran for what they believe are Tehran's nuclear weapons ambitions.

John Calabrese, an analyst at the Middle East Institute and professor at American University, says the current situation in Iraq has had almost inherently conflicting effects in Iran and North Korea and on their nuclear programs.

"It's almost contradictory. On the one hand, the situation in Iraq has contributed to the acceleration of those programs," Calabrese says. "On the other hand, what it's done is contributed to the mistrust, or pre-existing mistrust, between the United States and those two regimes. I think it's going to be very difficult for the Bush administration to persuade either government that it's truly abandoned the regime change option, even at the same time when the United States seems to have lost the military capacity, at least, to produce those regime changes."

The United States has refused to hold direct bilateral talks with either North Korea or Iran on their nuclear programs, because, analysts say, it believes that sitting down at the same table would confer some kind of legitimacy on the regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang.

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