U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has reaffirmed President Bush's description of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil" because of their links to terrorism and efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. But in Senate committee testimony Tuesday, the secretary said it does not mean U.S. military action is imminent against any one of those countries.
Mr. Powell was appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to defend the administration's $25 billion foreign affairs budget for the coming year. But he also found himself defending the controversial language the president used in his State of the Union address last week to characterize Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
The committee chairman, Democrat Joseph Biden, said he agreed that all of those countries pose security threats to some degree, but said they are hardly allies with identical policies. And he questioned whether the president was signaling a major policy change, or merely making a rhetorical flourish.
Mr. Powell said the label coined by President Bush was as accurate as former President Ronald Reagan's 1980s depiction of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." He said Mr. Bush called the three countries an evil axis because they deserve the designation. Yet, he said, it does not mean the United States is preparing to move against them, or has written off the prospect of dialogue.
"It does not mean that we are ready to invade anyone, or that we are not willing to engage in dialogue. Quite the contrary. But, because we are willing to engage in dialogue, and are quite willing to work with friends and allies around the world to deal with these kinds of regimes, there's no reason for us not to identify them for what they are," he said.
Mr. Powell said the people of the three states are not evil, but their regimes are. He said the clearer the United States is about this judgment, the better able it will be to press - along with other like-minded countries - for changes in their policies.
While the committee's ranking Republican and former chairman Jesse Helms welcomed the president's language, another committee Republican, Chuck Hagel, said he worried that it reflected a "cavalier attitude" toward U.S. allies and others who disagree with the White House approach.
Under questioning, Mr. Powell specifically reaffirmed the U.S. readiness to re-engage North Korea in talks on its ballistic missile program and other issues at any time they decide to come back, saying, in his words "the ball is in their court" it is up to them.