Secretary of State Colin Powell told Senators Tuesday that there is currently no U.S. plan to wage war against Iran, Iraq or North Korea. The countries were listed by President Bush in his State of the Union address as being part of an "axis of evil."
Mr. Powell was cautioned by a senior Senate Democrat not to embark on any such conflict without Congressional authorization.
The Secretary was appearing before the Senate Budget Committee to defend the administration's foreign affairs budget for the coming year. But much of the questioning dealt with the implications of the President's controversial comments in his State of the Union address last month about an "axis of evil."
Mr. Powell said while the remarks have given rise to speculation about early U.S. military action against the countries listed, there is no such recommendation before the President.
Secretary Powell said, "He has no plan on his desk right now to begin a war with any nation. The nation that is of perhaps a higher level of concern than others is Iraq. With respect to Iran and with respect to North Korea, there is no plan to start a war with these nations, we want to see a dialogue. We want to contain North Korea's activities with respect to proliferation. And we're going to keep the pressure on them. But there is no plan to begin a war with North Korea, nor is there a plan to begin a conflict with Iran."
The secretary of state said he put Iraq in a different category because a "regime change" in Baghdad has been a U.S. foreign policy objective for several years.
He said the administration is "always examining options" for bringing that about, and said there are many different ways Saddam Hussein might eventually leave power including, in his words, by "natural causes."
The hearing included criticism of the president's "axis of evil" comments by Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, who said Mr. Bush had alarmed many Americans and U.S. allies with his rhetoric and should not, in the Senator's words "go around shooting from the hip."
Mr. Byrd, one of the Senate's most senior members and a constitutional expert, warned that a military campaign against Iraq or North Korea would be far more difficult and costly than current operations in Afghanistan. He said if President Bush is contemplating action against them, he would be well-advised to seek a formal declaration of war from Congress.
Senator Byrd said, "We have time here to discuss these matters, to discuss the case, to debate pro and con. And I personally believe that the President - before he takes such a step, if that's being considered an option - we'd better be very careful to bring the American people in on making the case. And we'd better seek a declaration of war from Congress in such a case."
Responding, Mr. Powell again said the president's State of the Union comments were not meant to suggest imminent hostilities. But he told Senator Byrd that if Mr. Bush believed military action was needed, he would consult Congress about his intentions.