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Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 17:41 GMT
Analysis: The 'axis of evil' debate
President Bush delivering his State of the Union address
Bush seems to have scared both allies and enemies
Jon Leyne

Rarely can one phrase have caused such confusion and controversy.

A week after President Bush singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech, the US Secretary of State Colin Powell has moved to reassure America's allies about the meaning of the phrase.

The actions and words have consequences that are very dangerous... when there's little margin of error left

Senator Chuck Hagel
"It does not mean that we are ready to invade anyone or that we are not willing to engage in dialogue. Quite the contrary," Mr Powell said.

But it did not even reassure the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee whom Mr Powell was addressing.


Senator Chuck Hagel said: "Actions and words have consequences that are very dangerous at a time in the history of man when there's little margin of error left.

"I've known you a long time and respect you too much not to be very direct with you on the concern that I have."

It was not a rhetorical flourish - he meant it.

Colin Powell speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Powell: "Dialogue has not been ruled out"
But what did he mean?

I asked the chairman of the committee, Democratic Senator Joe Biden, what he made of the axis of evil?

"I was confused by it. I'm not exactly sure what he means. Obviously these are three bad actors, in a sense.

"If we could change the situation in Iran, Iraq or North Korea... I think all of Europe would do that as well as the United States, but there are three different circumstances, three different situations. Beyond that I don't know what the President had in mind," he said.

Were America's allies right to be disturbed by it, it sounded very bellicose?

"Well, I don't know if they're right to be disturbed by it, I think they're right to seek further explanation of what he has in mind," Mr Biden said.

His confusion is not shared by everyone.

Iraqi interpretation

The day after the State of the Union message, members of the leading Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, suddenly found doors were opening for them in Washington. Frozen funding was resumed.

US Marine
1. Iraq: Suspected of wanting to pursue programmes to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missiles
2. Iran: Listed by US as state sponsor of terrorism. Washington says Tehran plans to develop weapons of mass destruction
3. North Korea: The US's main concern has been missiles and other weapons programmes and willingness to export sensitive technology

See also:
Detailed clickable map

Their spokesman, Sharif Ali, said it was a dramatic transformation.

"It's as if we met people the following day and it was as if we'd been speaking to different people. And the further we go along the more sense of determination we get from the administration.

"Obviously, nobody's speaking it outright, but most people regard the State of the Union speech as a decision by the president to move forward on Iraq."

It is not surprising the Iraqi opposition is delighted.

Privately, however, there are those, even on the right of American politics, who are nervous about how fast Mr Bush is moving forward.

Frightening message

But so far, says EJ Dion, of the Brookings Institution, there is very little open criticism.

"There's real, a genuine solidarity in the United States on the need to hit back against terror. And I think there's a reluctance to take the president on right now," he says.

But Mr Dion believes there are forces in the administration that would like to, at the very least, postpone direct confrontation and would like to put in place a new sanctions regime.

"They would like to set things up in a way that would actually win some support if we, the United States, ever did go to war with Iraq. I think that that's where the debate inside the administration is," Mr Dion says.

The Duke of Wellington once jokingly said he did not know whether his troops frightened the enemy, but they certainly terrified him.

Mr Bush's State of the Union message seems to have frightened America's allies quite as much as it scared its enemies - evil or otherwise.

See also:

06 Feb 02 | Americas
US softens line on 'evil axis'
05 Feb 02 | Middle East
Powell 'rejects' Iraq talks
04 Feb 02 | Americas
US renews attack on 'evil axis'
31 Jan 02 | Middle East
Iran lashes out at Bush
30 Jan 02 | Americas
Iran accuses Bush of war-mongering
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