Other than the debacle of Obama's domestic policies and the Gulf oil spill non-leadership issue, two of the most daunting tasks facing Obama in the area of foreign policy are North Korea and Iran. Thankfully, Bush helped take care of another one- Iraq. The other two are part of Bush's original "axis of evil."
First, some liberal pundits believe that the State of the Union speech that gave us that infamous phrase in 2002 calling out these countries by name created more harm than good. Some have mentioned that it established the verbal prelude to war in Iraq. Still others have questioned the priorities stating that Iran and/or North Korea presented a greater threat than Iraq. And finally there are those who contest the phrase "axis" or "evil." As for the axis part, it would, they claim, entail some coordinated efforts among the three. And the "evil" aspect conjures up religious overtones. Bush, being the dolt that he was portrayed to be, couldn't understand the nuances of the phrase they claim.
That is all hogwash. The phrase was coined by speech writer David Frum who noted some similarities with the Axis powers of World War II. Although they had agreements like the Tripartite Pact amongst themselves- unlike the Axis of Evil- they actually represented three different things. The fascism of Mussolini's Italy was somewhat different than the deranged fascism of Hitler's Germany. Fascism bound them just as Islam binds Iran and Iraq although one was Sunni-dominated and the other Shiite-dominated. Japan, on the other hand, was militaristic for economic and imperialistic reasons. Like North Korea today, their war-mongering originated from a different set of reasons. However, all three shared one commonality, just like the axis of evil- they were enemies of the United States. As for the "evil" part, call a spade a spade. North Korea is perhaps one of the most impoverished, repressive, closed societies in the world. Iraq under Hussein waged costly wars against Iran and Kuwait. He used chemical weapons on Kurds in the north and Shiites in Basra in the south. He employed the use of rape chambers against the female family members of political opponents. In Iran, they still seek a nuclear weapons program and violently repress protests against fraudulent elections and continue to finance terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Call it what you will, but it sounds like evil to me, not some bratty containable behavior by a country. That would more aptly describe Hugo Chavez.
As for the priorities argument, we can argue that one until the cows come home. Perhaps Bush advisors harbored a grudge against Iraq and wanted to finish the job they viewed as unfinished in the first Gulf war. But realistically, Iraq represented perhaps the weakest of the three military targets. And you have to start somewhere. What better place than the weakest target to send a message that talk and sanctions have expired. As such, we should just grant the argument that it was the verbal prelude to the Iraq war.
Finally, as to it causing more harm than good, the philosophy is that it emboldened these rogue states. They point to the fact that North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon and began testing ballistic missiles as a result of the rhetoric. However, it is a fact that the 1994 agreement regarding North Korean nuclear aspirations was already unraveling to the point of being null and void. Did the rhetoric create or merely speed up this eventuality? The answer may never be known. It is a moot point today and does it really make a difference whether they detonated a nuclear device in 2006 or 2011? At least it spared Obama yet another chance at failed leadership. Some have declared that the rhetoric caused a chilling effect on the nascent democratic reform movement in Iran. Well, we all saw via Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube how Iran deals with nascent democratic reform movements.
The bottom line is that no matter what you call it, these nations represented repressive regimes bound by a common distrust and dislike of the United States. Look at it in reverse, or Obama-style. One of this administration's earliest decisions was to drop a phrase, not coin one- "the war on terror." Yet, has dropping a phrase lessened the threat of terrorism directed at the United States? Laws and policies promulgated under Bush along with quick action by civilians and some plain dumb luck along the way have thwarted or prevented another terrorist attack on the United States. But, the threat still very much exists whether Obama considers it a "war" or not. Likewise, the designation of evil makes no difference as concerns the rogue actions of Iran, North Korea, or Iraq under Hussein. All the nice talk, diplomacy and outreach does not change these inconvenient facts.
This has some very real foreign policy implications for Obama. His use of diplomacy has achieved very little while Iran puffs its chest and thumbs its nose at the rest of the world. North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and sink South Korean ships. If anything, the axis of evil has been expanded under Obama's watch with the inclusion of Somalia, Myanamar, and the Sudan, not to mention the fact that the Taliban now rule large swaths of Pakistan. That is the world that Obama's foreign policy has created and all the talk of outreach, sanctions, diplomacy, mutual understandings and "hitting the reset button" has achieved essentially nothing, or worse, a backdrift. In return, Obama got rebuked by Iran and a book from Hugo Chavez. And he managed to alienate Israel along the way. At least Bush got something resembling democracy in Iraq and Libya to forego it's nuclear aspirations.
I don't aspire to have the solutions to these very real problems. But, it is evident that talk and appeasement do precious little when it comes to dealing with evil. If it were possible, just ask Neville Chamberlain how that strategy worked out in 1938.