A year in the life of the axis of evil
By Joe Havely
(CNN) -- Every year the president of the United States presents his report card to the American people.
The State of the Union address is an opportunity to rally friends, reach out to opponents and lay out an agenda for the year ahead.
Every year they are told the state of America's union has "never been stronger".
In 2002, however, a new phrase thundered into the political lexicon -- the greatest threat to world peace, Bush announced, came from three states: an "axis of evil."
Iran, Iraq, North Korea and "their terrorist allies," he warned, were "arming to threaten the peace of the world."
In the days that followed the phrase was probed, pummeled and dissected in thousands of column-inches around the world.
Supporters said it gave the world a much-needed wake up call, signaling that inaction and crossing of fingers was no longer an option when it came to dealing with the threat posed by "rogue states."
Critics, on the other hand, condemned it as a dangerous simplification; the product of an administration that sought to categorize the outside world in bi-polar terms -- you are with us, or you are against us.
'Going after Iraq'
Either way almost everyone agreed the "axis" label was an inspired and ultimately catchy piece of speech writing.
"It was a speech writer's dream and a policy-maker's nightmare," commented former Clinton secretary of state, Warren Christopher.
According to the man credited with creating the "axis" concept, former speech writer David Frum, his assignment was to construct the case for '"going after Iraq."
In his recently published book, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W Bush, Frum says he built around Iraq what he termed an "axis of hatred," shorn up by the addition of Iran and North Korea -- two other states eyeing the development of nuclear weapons.
By the time the speech was ready, "axis of hatred" had evolved with some presidential input into "axis of evil," adding what some saw as a moral dimension to Bush's foreign policy.
But beyond their alleged weapons programs and a professed loathing of the United States, experts say the three "axis" states share nothing in the way of a common agenda and certainly have no formal alliance.
Iran and Iraq, for example, fought a bitter border war in the 1980s during which Iranian troops felt the full force of Saddam's chemical arsenal.
The bigger threat?
North Korea, with one of the world's largest standing armies, is perhaps the world's most isolated regime with few friends anywhere in the world.
Indeed, many say North Korea is the greatest and most immediate threat -- to the United States and the rest of the world.
In the past year Pyongyang has ratcheted up its nuclear rhetoric, withdrawn from the non-proliferation treaty, and threatened to resume missile testing -- moves which some say were provoked by aggressive signals from the Bush administration.
And yet, as the president delivers his follow-up State of the Union speech, 12 months after the "axis" phrase was born, the overwhelming focus remains on Iraq.
With or without international support, the Bush administration says it is prepared to take military action to disarm Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq, however, denies having any such weapons.
United Nations weapons inspectors have also, apparently, failed to find evidence of that elusive "smoking gun."
North Korea, on the other hand, has admitted to possessing an active nuclear weapons program -- according to the Bush administration at least.
It also, according to the CIA, has enough plutonium for one or two bombs and is threatening to produce many more.
On top of that North Korea is a demonstrated proliferator of missiles and other weapons, willing to sell to anyone able to cough up the cash -- an act which, however distasteful, is nonetheless not illegal.
So, critics argue, why no military build-up on the Korean Peninsula like that taking place in the Gulf?
Then there is Iran, the third part of the axis, accused of being the principal backer of anti-Israeli terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas.
Critics say, branding Tehran with the same "evil" tag as Baghdad has only served to alienate the moderate, pro-democratic sections of the Iranian leadership and give ammunition to the hardliners.
More carefully handled, they argue, Iran could have been molded into a useful ally against Iraq.
The Bush administration, for its part, insists the "axis of evil" was never intended to signal a uniform policy towards all three states.
Rather the intention was to point to common characteristics that united the regimes in Baghdad, Pyongyang and Tehran.
"We've always said that we were not going to have a cookie-cutter approach," says National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
According to the White House, the evidence it says it has collected clearly proves that Saddam is the most imminent and dangerous threat.
For 11 years, administration officials say, the U.S. has tried and failed to disarm Iraq.
With North Korea, on the other hand, they believe there is still room for diplomacy.
As for the axis phrase itself -- useful as it was for those all-important sound bites, it appears to have been discreetly dropped by White House staffers.
Bush himself has not used the phrase since August.