Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Is to Be Done With Axis of Evil?

President George W. Bush's labeling as evil the regimes of Iran, Iraq and North Korea has provoked consternation in Europe, indignation among the accused and a fair amount of backing and filling from his own administration. The latter is, in our view, not very helpful. The president's remarks were quite clear and, for the most part, pushed U.S. foreign policy in the right direction. Among other virtues, what Bush said about the three countries has the advantage of being true.

That does not mean that the United States should go right to war against all, or indeed any, of the regimes. The administration's first obligation is to defend against the most immediate threat, which is to say al-Qaida. Most of its leaders have not been killed or captured; "tens of thousands of trained terrorists are still at large,'' Bush said, and terrorist training camps "still exist in at least a dozen countries.'' Nor is the war in Afghanistan yet complete.

Moreover, the nations that Bush lumped into an "axis of evil'' are certainly not allies with each other; and each presents to the United States a distinct set of challenges. In Iran, the theocrats may be dangerously close to achieving nuclear proficiency; but a majority of the population, as revealed in unfulfilled elections, wants to take the country in a different direction, and U.S. policy must encourage the latter while checking the former. A strong U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula is needed to deter the North from attacking, but the democratically elected government in South Korea believes that diplomacy with the North remains worth trying.

Iraq, busy rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction in the absence of UN inspectors, represents the most immediate threat, and the "tools'' cited by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in a follow-up speech do not seem adequate to the danger. Rice brandished a strengthening of nonproliferation regimes, a redoubled effort with Russia to control the "leakage of dangerous materials and technologies,'' and a missile defense system. But missile defense won't stop Saddam Hussein's cooperation with terrorists, and arms control regimes have never been anything more than a useful curtain for Saddam's weapons programs. The tool of forcible regime change -- of military action -- must also be considered.

The countries most opposed to that idea also tend to be those least willing to enforce any measures designed to keep Iraq's dictator in check. We don't want to point fingers, but France, Russia and China come to mind. Rather than wasting time disputing Bush's assessment of the threat, they and other nations ought to come together in seeking ways to defang it.

This comment appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.