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The Axis Shrinks

North Korea’s shutdown of a key weapons-grade nuclear reactor, confirmed this week by United Nations inspectors, offers an important moment of clarity in American foreign policy. It could be seen as a critical juncture — perhaps a turning point — in the global quest to limit nuclear arms proliferation and to defang the worst rogue regimes.

To be sure, the shutdown of the plutonium reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear plant is only the first step in what promises to be an arduous negotiation to dismantle North Korea’s bomb factory and disable its existing weapons. Nonetheless, it is a first step. More important, it is a demonstration of good faith by what is, in most eyes, the world’s most paranoid regime, and a triumph for multilateral diplomacy. Compare that to our other efforts at disarming rogue regimes.

It was five and a half years ago that President Bush, in his January 2002 State of the Union address, named North Korea as one of the three states constituting what he called the “axis of evil.” The other two were Iraq and Iran. These three regimes, Bush said, “together with their terrorist allies,” were “arming to threaten the peace of the world.” America, Bush said, would not stand by and wait “while dangers gather.” America would “do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security.”

It was a bold vision, and a compelling one, particularly for a nation still reeling from the attacks of September 11, four months earlier. “Our war on terror is well begun,” the president said, “but it is only begun.” Five and a half years later, how has it unfolded?

Leave aside the fact that the 9/11 attackers had come not from saber-rattling Iraq, Iran or North Korea, but from preindustrial Afghanistan. Leave aside the fact that they attacked not with atom bombs but with box cutters and airplane tickets. Grant that the prospect of rogue regimes acquiring nuclear weapons, and perhaps giving them to terrorists, is a terrifying one. Grant that America must indeed do what is necessary to stop it. Five and a half years later, what have we learned? How is the job coming along? And what, precisely, is necessary to get it done?

Well, here’s the box score so far: In one of our three rogue nations, North Korea, we chose during the Clinton years to follow a long, patient path of negotiation, carefully mixing carrots and sticks, working closely with other leaders of the world community, including Russia, China and Japan. The Bush administration tried briefly, after the president’s “axis of evil” speech, to force a showdown, but North Korea replied by setting off a nuclear bomb, and Washington scurried back to the negotiating table. Last winter the North Koreans, realizing it’s them against the rest of the world, agreed in principle to give up their bombs. This week they took the first step.

In Iraq, by contrast, we had no patience for U.N. inspectors and the slow dance of international diplomacy. Instead we charged in with guns blazing, determined to overthrow the regime before it went nuclear and to replace it with a model democracy. Alas, there was no bomb, and there is no democracy, now or any time soon. Instead we have created a bloody maelstrom, turned Iraq into a breeding ground for international terrorists, and trapped ourselves in an endless war that we can’t win and can’t get out of.

And now there is Iran — three times the size of Iraq or North Korea, far more economically developed than either of them and blessed, unlike either of them, with a multitude of religious believers ready to follow its leaders over any cliff. How will we deal with Iran? Attack, or keep talking? Line up the world, or go in alone?

Having dispensed with two of our three Axis members, we have learned about one course of action that works and another one that doesn’t. Logically, the choice shouldn’t be too difficult.


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