The axis of evil

Four and a half years ago, George W. Bush vowed to prevent what happened Sunday night.

Published October 9, 2006 3:29PM (EDT)

Four and a half years ago, George W. Bush used his State of the Union address to warn that North Korea, Iran and Iraq constituted an "axis of evil" that threatened the "peace of the world." The president said then that the United States would "do what is necessary" to ensure global security. "I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer," he said. "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

One of them just did.

North Korea appears to have detonated an atomic bomb in an underground test Sunday night. As the Associated Press reports, accounts differ on the size of the blast. South Korea says it was relatively small. Russia says it may have been of the magnitude of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Bush called the test "unacceptable" and called on the U.N. Security Council to make an "immediate response." That's all well and good, but we're here now. Four and a half years ago, the president vowed that he would not permit the "world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most dangerous weapons." But instead of focusing his energies on the two countries that were actually making progress toward building a nuclear weapon, Bush took the United States to war against the third member of the axis -- the one that had neither weapons of mass destruction nor any active program to build them.

That war isn't going so well just now. The brother of Iraq's vice president has just been murdered by men disguised -- maybe -- as police officers. Twelve Iraqis were killed Sunday in Talafar, a city hailed by Bush not so long ago as a beacon of hope in the new Iraq. The U.S. death toll has spiked in recent weeks: Thirty Americans dead since Oct. 1, nearly 2,750 dead since the war began. Over the weekend, James Baker, the Republican co-chairman of the president's bipartisan commission on Iraq, said that it's time to start talking about the sort of middle-ground approach whose very existence the White House -- in its efforts to frame the political debate as a choice between stalwart Republicans and "defeatist" Democrats -- has always sought to deny. "I think it's fair to say our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives, the ones that are out there in the political debate, of 'stay the course' and 'cut and run,'" Baker said on ABC's "This Week."

Iran? There's not much good news to report there, either. As Time explains, the European Union's efforts have been "fruitless, failing to persuade Tehran to agree to suspend uranium enrichment as a precondition for negotiations over a comprehensive deal." The U.S. is going to have to begin pushing harder for sanctions. But it's not going to get any help from Russia or China, both of which oppose sanctions, and Time says that "no one in Washington or anyone else really believes such sanctions will change Iran's attitude" anyway. A military option? There aren't any good ones, particularly with the United States bogged down in Iraq and in need of more troops in Afghanistan.

And now -- and still -- there's North Korea. As Glenn Kessler writes in the Washington Post this morning, North Korea's latest actions "may well be regarded as a failure of the Bush administration's nuclear nonproliferation policy." That's an understatement, a point Kessler makes plain as he lays out the relevant history:

"When Bush became president in 2000, Pyongyang's reactor was frozen under a 1994 agreement with the United States. Clinton administration officials thought they were so close to a deal limiting North Korean missiles that in the days before he left office, Bill Clinton seriously considered making the first visit to Pyongyang by a U.S. president. But conservatives had long been deeply skeptical of the deal freezing North Korea's program -- known as the Agreed Framework -- in part because it called for building two light-water nuclear reactors (largely funded by the Japanese and South Koreans). When then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell publicly said in early 2001 that he favored continuing Clinton's approach, Bush rebuked him."

That's just the beginning of the story; if anyone needs a primer on how we got to where we are today, Kessler's piece is as good as any. The short version of the rest of it: "Bush carried a deep, visceral hatred of Kim [Jong Il] and his dictatorial regime ... missile negotiations ended ... no talks were held between senior U.S. and North Korean officials for nearly two years ... the Bush administration, hampered by internal disputes, struggled to fashion a diplomatic effort ... talks largely stalled ... Bush administration officials ... argued that a confrontational approach would finally bring North Korea to heel."

It's probably too early to say that the United States is the one that has been brought to heel, but neither can anyone say that George W. Bush is walking Iraq, Iran or North Korea around on the end of his leash just now. Oh, and by the way, has anyone seen Osama bin Laden lately?

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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George W. Bush Iran Iraq Middle East North Korea Osama Bin Laden War Room