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Out here in Sagebrush Rebellion territory, in the wake of President Bush's approval of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, many of us now think that the President, Vice President Dick Cheney and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham constitute a domestic "Axis of Evil." Nevertheless, it's worth taking a closer look at the newest Axis of Evil -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

After Bush put the axis label on those three countries, congressional Democrats went ballistic, charging him with beating the drums for World War III. In my opinion, however, the Democrats overreacted because in this case, we should compare the president's words to his actions on his recent trip to Asia. As veteran Washington columnist Jules Witcover observed in the Baltimore Sun, "The contrast between President Bush talking tough in Washington for a domestic audience solidly behind his war on terrorism and speaking in relatively conciliatory tones (overseas) ... is encouraging."

On his trip to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo, President Bush moderated his rhetoric. In Seoul, he reiterated his support for South Korea's "sunshine" policy for more open ties between the two Koreas, and in Beijing he urged China to embrace liberty, tolerance and religious freedom. In my opinion, it was a praiseworthy diplomatic performance, striking a nice balance between carrots and sticks.

Before the president departed Washington his National security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, explained the Axis of Evil in USA Today. "When talking about deadly threats to the American people, clarity is a virtue," she wrote. "The two major threats we face are global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction." Then she described the threats posed by the three "evil" nations mentioned by the President:

n "Iran's direct support of regional and global terrorism and its aggressive efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction are a real and present threat. The people of Iran have made clear their desire for freedom, but an unelected few continue to frustrate that hope."

n "Iraq continues to threaten its neighbors and its own people and continues to flout obligations that it undertook in 1991. And that can mean only one thing: It remains a dangerous regime, and it remains a regime determined to acquire these terrible weapons."

n "North Korea not only seeks weapons of mass destruction, but it is now the world's No. 1 merchant for ballistic missiles, open for business with anyone, no matter how destructive the buyer's intentions."

If we accept the dictionary definition of evil -- "Morally corrupt or wicked; producing or threatening sorrow, distress or calamity" -- I'd say these three countries are certifiably evil. So why did Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and other congressional Democrats overreact? Perhaps, as Steven Mufson wrote in the Washington Post, it was because they feared that "a war on evil can become a war without end." According to Mufson, "Bush's stark view of the world does not appear to weigh him down so much as give him a clear sense of mission" to rid the world of "evildoers."

"There is no point in being coy about that," countered Ms. Rice. "It is far better to expose problems than to try to sweep them under the rug." She compared Bush's Axis of Evil remarks to Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech in 1946.

If we judge the president by his actions rather than his words, we shouldn't panic. In South Korea, he reassured his hosts that he understood their desire for future reunification with North Korea and stressed his hope for better relations with the Communist North. "Bush's saber-rattling stance was put aside, at least temporarily," the Korea Times concluded in an editorial. And in pacifistic Japan, Prime Minister Koizumi said his country will continue to support the anti-terror campaign and praised Bush for adopting a "calm and cautious" approach to international threats.

But to me, President Bush saved his best for last in his visit to Beijing, where he navigated a middle course between criticism of China's record on human rights and nuclear proliferation, and cordial talks over trade and the war on terrorism. And he was almost eloquent as he defended freedom and democracy in a nationally televised speech to students at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

"A free society trusts its citizens," he told a skeptical audience. "Diversity is not disorder. Debate is not strife. And dissent is not revolution." He decried Chinese "misconceptions" about the United States and reminded his listeners that the U.S. "shines as a beacon of hope, a reason many throughout the world dream of coming to America." The Chinese government promptly hacked out large chunks of Bush's speech extolling American liberty and urging China to relax its political and religious restrictions in a censored transcript released by the official New China News Agency.

But, as AP news analyst Ron Fournier noted, Bush's address "was a clarion call for liberty in one of Earth's few remaining Communist nations." It was a clear, courageous statement of American ideals in a hostile setting, and the President deserves credit for telling our inspiring story to the world at a time when we're under attack by the bloodthirsty enemies of freedom and democracy. In so doing, George W. Bush became a powerful weapon in the ongoing war of words between us and the forces of evil.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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