The varied US spins on 'axis of evil' members

President Bush's "axis of evil" – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea – may indeed be linked by the evil actions of their respective regimes. But as the Bush administration is learning, each of the three poses a different threat and challenge that requires a separately tailored US response.

With North Korea's dramatic admission that it has been developing a clandestine nuclear weapons development program for several years, it is now clear that at least two of the three "evil axis" members – Iraq and North Korea – are duplicitous and not to be trusted in their denials of charges that they have been making such weapons of mass destruction. As far as the third member, Iran, is concerned, the US would still like a lot more information about its undercover support of terrorism and its pursuit of such weapons.

Though each of the three is a bad actor on the international stage, the US is necessarily handling them differently.

Iraq is in the cross hairs of the US military, threatened by a White House order to launch a preemptive strike if diplomacy fails to make Saddam Hussein honor a string of UN disarmament resolutions. The diplomacy involves getting the UN Security Council to support military action against Iraq if international arms inspectors are barred from finding and ensuring the destruction of the weapons Mr. Hussein claims he does not have.

The polls show continuing US public support for a UN-backed military operation against Iraq, but Mr. Bush faces considerable opposition abroad. However, he is holding firm to his intent. US officials say the recently disclosed North Korean nuclear program reinforces their concerns about the burgeoning clandestine program in Iraq.

Why then, if US diplomacy must be backed by the threat of military force in the case of Iraq, is it not a factor in the case of North Korea? The answer is that Hussein has actually used his weapons of mass destruction against his own people, and has attacked neighboring countries. North Korea, on the other hand, although dangerous and unpredictable, has not unleashed its weapons of that kind, and has lately been making peaceful overtures to South Korea.

Thus the US, although sharply critical of the North Korean nuclear disclosure, is initially going the diplomatic route in an attempt to get the nuclear program stopped. It is enlisting the support of China, which is opposed to the introduction of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula, and which has some sway with the North Korean regime. China's role will likely be a key topic at Friday's meeting in Crawford, Texas, between Mr. Bush and China's President Jiang Zemin.

Perhaps even more concerned than the US over North Korea's nuclear program are neighbors South Korea and Japan. On Saturday, their leaders, President Kim Dae Jung and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi respectively, will meet with Bush in Mexico. They will undoubtedly discuss the North Korean threat and try to coordinate their respective responses. The North Korean disclosure seems certain to put a crimp in any South Korean and Japanese moves toward normalization of relations with North Korea.

From the US, the North Koreans can expect the immediate suspension of annual 500,000-ton shipments of fuel oil, as well as a halt on plans for two light-water nuclear reactors. These measures offered under a 1994 Agreed Framework, were in exchange for Pyongyang's promise to halt its nuclear-arms program – a promise obviously betrayed. The course of any future US-North Korean negotiations is unclear.

The third member of the "axis of evil," Iran, is a complex puzzle. This is the country that supports terrorism abroad while publicly denying it, that exports arms to Yasser Arafat for use against the Israelis, and in which Revolutionary Guards two decades ago pranced around the American Embassy and held US diplomats hostage for 444 days. Its Islamic fundamentalist government is hardly a friend of the US, but there is a seething movement among the youth of the country for reform, and even dialogue with the US.

Such are the conundrums that currently confront American policymakers as they must distinguish not only between friend and foe, but between foe and foe.

• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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