After 9/11, the first publicly stated goal of the War on TerrorTM was to catch the bastard who did it, "dead or alive." That policy was widely criticized, not only because it equated U.S. foreign policy to a Bon Jovi song, but, among other reasons, because it failed to acknowledge a much deadlier strategic threat to the safety of American civilians -- namely that a terrorist would get his (or her) hands on a nuclear (or nucular) weapon from a terrorism-sponsoring nation.
So, in early 2002 (coincidentally, not long after Osama bin Laden thwarted the Bon Jovi strategy by evading U.S. forces at Tora Bora), President Bush changed course. The War on TerrorTM would no longer be about just one guy. Instead, the president said, the war would be about Iran, Iraq and North Korea, an "axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." The war's new objective, President Bush would repeat over the next few years, would be to keep "the world's most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous regimes."
Like the old policy, the new one was subject to criticism. For instance, how do three countries that aren't conspiring in any way constitute an "axis" of anything? And what about the threat of Russian nukes? Experts on these sorts of things say that terrorists are far more likely to get nukes from Russia's poorly secured stockpile than they are from any "axis of evil." Also, why did we have to go replacing the Bon Jovi imagery with DC Comics imagery?
Of course, the biggest criticism of the new policy focuses on how we executed it. We blew our military, our national budget and our diplomatic and moral authority around the world by invading the "axis of evil" nation that posed the least danger to us: Iraq. The result is that we now have less leverage to separate Iran and North Korea from their nuclear ambitions.
Case in point: Shortly after the "axis of evil" speech, North Korea dropped out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and accelerated its uranium enrichment program. Analysts estimate that North Korea started off 2002 with one or two nukes. Now it has somewhere closer to 10.
But we are making some progress in our effort to disarm North Korea. The country has agreed in principle to give up its nuclear weapons and weapon program in exchange for economic aid and a promise that we won't invade. Ironically, though, the outlined agreement is pretty much a carbon copy of the one the Clinton administration negotiated with North Korea 1994 -- and the one Bush rejected in 2001.
As for Iran, efforts to get that country to give up its nuclear program haven't gotten anywhere so far, but might soon.
Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency voted to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council. Though Iran insists that its nuclear program is solely intended for energy production, the IAEA has bemoaned what it calls an "absence of confidence" that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively used for peaceful purposes.
The referral to the U.N. Security Council won't take place until November at the earliest, and even then it's not guaranteed to happen. The IAEA committee that would have to vote to send the referral to the United Nations is made up of representatives from several countries that rely on Iran for oil and natural gas. And Iran has threatened to use its energy resources (the country is the world's fourth largest oil producer) to punish countries that vote "yes."
Iran also has threatened to drop out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, just like North Korea did in 2002. Doing so would result in the removal of dozens of IAEA cameras that currently monitor Iran's nuclear sites and would make it impossible for IAEA inspectors to visit Iran's nuclear sites. Those cameras and inspectors give us the only reliable info we have on Iran's nukes. We have satellite images and informants telling us about Iran's nuclear program, but after the Iraq WMD debacle, no one would be stupid enough to rely on just that.