The axis of evil, five years later

In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush listed North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as the "axis of evil." Where stands the axis five years later?

North Korea: a deal, but no seal

North Korea can be counted as a tentative – very tentative – success for diplomacy. Last week, after many months of tortuous on-and-off six-nation talks, a deal was cut that envisages the Pyongyang regime taking the first steps toward nuclear disarmament. The North Koreans must shut down their main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and allow inspectors from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency to confirm that. In return, North Korea will get some $400 million of aid, primarily for 50,000 tons of fuel oil and other humanitarian assistance.

The North Koreans cheated on a similar earlier deal with the Clinton administration, and have been fairly duplicitous in releasing information about the nuclear bomb, or bombs, they may or may not have already produced. So some diplomats and politicians may be pardoned for their skepticism that this deal is the real thing. There is a deadline 60 days out for the six nations to regroup and confirm that this agreement is being implemented. Stay tuned. If North Korea keeps its side of the bargain, there will be further negotiations to discuss the elimination of the bomb, or bombs, it already has produced.

A communist nation that has virtually set itself apart from the modern world, North Korea has long helped prop up its dismal economy by selling millions of dollars worth of missiles and other armament to governments and organizations of dubious character and intent. The prospect of the North's nuclear bombs being traded to terrorists is chilling to many world capitals, especially Washington. But for a variety of reasons, it's a difficult target for the United States to confront with military power. Hence the hope that the Pyongyang regime can be reined in by diplomacy.

Iraq: a few rays of hope

Iraq has felt the full force of US military power and the outcome is still mixed. Saddam Hussein, the cruel leader who caused President Bush to term Iraq's regime "evil," has been removed. But in his wake there has been horrific bloodshed between the Sunni minority and the Shiite majority, inflamed by the actions of groups that seek to subvert the new government and thwart Iraq's progression to some kind of democracy.

There are a few rays of hope. Tough new actions by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seem to have, at least temporarily, reduced the level of violence in Baghdad. The apparent departure to Iran of the militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr may give Mr. Maliki the opportunity to crack down on the cleric's Mahdi Army, the formidable Shiite militia that is a major contributor to violence. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Baghdad this past weekend encouraging Maliki to speed reconciliation among warring factions.

With the US public increasingly anxious about the war, Democrats and a few Republicans in Congress have been maneuvering to bring US troops home and supplant military action with peace through diplomacy in the region. The flaw in this is that without military power to buttress it, diplomacy in the wake of withdrawal would have little sway.

Iran: sanctions and military might

Iran remains a problem for the US and such predominantly Sunni nations as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, which fear its Shiite influence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. UN authorized sanctions against Iran appear to be having some effect. The UN is due to consider further tightening if Iran does not cease its nuclear activities, which it says are for peaceful purposes, but which the US and others suspect are for making nuclear bombs.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's wild and provocative comments about Israel and the US may be causing some public disaffection at home, the extent of which is still hard to read. By contrast, Mr. Bush has become circumspect in his remarks about the leadership of the mullahs who control the real power in Iran. Similarly, while the movement of two US carrier groups into the waters off Iran have inevitably raised the possibility of military action, the president and his secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, emphatically deny that the US plans war against Iran.

While diplomacy is apparently favored as the current solution to US problems with Iran, the carriers are a quiet reminder that diplomacy is backed by military power.

Thus does the US interchange diplomacy and force of arms as it confronts the axis of evil.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.

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