Analyzing The 'Axis Of Evil'

Rhetoric aside, "axis of evil" doesn't mean much. Iraq and Iran are bitter enemies--they fought each other in the bloodiest war of the 1980s--and North Korea has little in common with either of them. Though all three "rogue nations" are thought to be developing weapons of mass destruction, no U.S. attack is imminent against any of them; good military options are as scarce as allies for such an undertaking. Instead, Washington faces challenges, and a few opportunities, from three very different countries:

Iraq

THREAT: Saddam Hussein's minions are known to be working on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Iraq is trying to rebuild its missile industry, and United Nations arms inspectors still have not been allowed back into the country. Although a few broken-down Palestinian groups are based in Baghdad, Iraq seems to have backed away from supporting terrorism.

OPTIONS: Washington is pressing for the return of the U.N. inspectors. It is also beginning to examine the possibilities for unilateral military action. "Think Osirak," says a Defense source, referring to the daring Israeli air raid that crippled an Iraqi reactor in 1981. An even more popular buzzword in the administration these days is "regime change." But internal opposition is weak, and if Saddam is to be overthrown, a massive military operation would be required.

PITFALLS: Pentagon planners think a drive on Baghdad would need well over 100,000 U.S. troops--and perhaps twice that many. So far, no allied soldiers or bases in the region are on offer. Even limited airstrikes on weapons-development facilities may not be feasible, since targets haven't been located. And if Saddam accepts the return of U.N. arms inspectors, regime change in Iraq presumably would have to be postponed.

Iran

THREAT:

OPTIONS: The Clinton administration tried to improve relations with Iran's relatively moderate head of government, President Mohammed Khatami. The results were mixed at best. The religious leaders who still have the final say over Iranian policy continue to regard America as the Great Satan. For its part, the Bush administration is generally more skeptical than Clinton was about the prospects for diplomatic fence-mending. But Bush's State of the Union address was harder on Iran's unelected mullahs than on Khatami's elected government. Bush has offered Iran a choice between cooperation and confrontation, hoping to strengthen the reformers. Since most of the ruling theocrats are elderly, time would seem to be on the side of the moderates, who are strongly supported by the country's restless youth. At the Pentagon, meanwhile, there appears to have been no serious exploration of U.S. military options against Iran.

PITFALLS: The only solid connection among the three nations in Bush's "axis of evil" is that Iran has been buying missile technology from North Korea. Now it is trying to build on that base and develop its own missile industry. If the developers are left undisturbed, Iran could have a prototype long-range ballistic missile by 2015, or perhaps even sooner, according to U.S. intelligence estimates.

North Korea

THREAT:

Proliferation is another Pyongyang specialty. Missiles and other weapons are about the only hard-currency exports in famine-ridden North Korea. Pakistan is a major buyer of North Korean missiles.

OPTIONS: During the past decade, Washington and Seoul have had some success in moderating Pyongyang's behavior through negotiation. North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear program in 1994 and its missile tests in 1999. In 2000 it formally promised to join in the fight against terrorism. The price for this improved behavior included the promise of a dialogue with the United States and a relaxation of economic sanctions. No headway has been made in the dialogue since Bush took office. If Washington opts for preemptive action against the North, it can draw on invasion plans that have been refined over the past 50 years--and dramatically updated, U.S. sources say, over the last five to seven years.

PITFALLS: The plans all assume that North Korea starts a war by invading the South and more or less obliterating Seoul; then, with heavy support from the United States (which already has 37,000 troops stationed on the peninsula), the defenders throw back the attackers and sweep all the way to Pyongyang. A first-strike American attack could be aimed at changing the regime in North Korea. But the prospects for a pre-emptive U.S. move against the North are not good, given the likelihood that Seoul would oppose any such effort. U.S. forces would need air bases in the South--which would almost certainly be denied to them.

Bottom line: cornering a rat can be dangerous. A U.S. military assault on North Korea--as on Iraq or Iran--could end up provoking precisely the kind of catastrophe that Washington wants to avoid. Going forward won't be easy.