Leading article: The 'axis of evil' revisited

It was one of the stupidest sound bites in history. George Bush, in his State of the Union address on 29 January 2002, stigmatised North Korea, Iran and Iraq as "an axis of evil". But it is important to be clear about what was wrong with it. It was not wrong to identify those three states as threats to international security. All three last week confirmed that they still pose immensely difficult challenges to the rest of the world.

The North Korean dictatorship said that it would weaponise its plutonium stocks. It was responding to a decision by the UN Security Council to toughen sanctions, which was in turn a response to a new nuclear test explosion and separate rocket test last month.

Yesterday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran claimed an emphatic victory in his attempt to be re-elected. As Robert Fisk writes today, the elections fell some distance short of free and fair, but there is little that Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mr Ahmadinejad's reformist opponent, can do about it. Mr Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric is all the more disturbing from the mouthpiece of a theocratic regime that has constantly deceived the UN and UN agencies about its ambitions to acquire nuclear technology.

And today, Patrick Cockburn reports exclusively for The Independent on Sunday on the fragility of the new order in Iraq, as it prepares for the withdrawal of US troops to the cities.

What was foolish about President Bush's vivid phrase was that it implied that there was some kind of conspiracy between the three states against America, or against the free world in general. This was patently absurd. Two of the three states had fought a long and bloody war against each other and were still mired in deep mutual hostility. Of the third, North Korea, almost all that most people know about it is that it is ruled by a closed and paranoid regime that regards all of the outside world with profound suspicion.

Yet President Bush said: "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." It was part of the dishonest attempt to suggest, as the administration prepared to invade Iraq, that Saddam Hussein was somehow part of a network of terrorism that linked him to the 11 September attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon. But it was not completely wrong. There were, and probably still are, some unlikely alliances in the murky business of weapons of mass destruction – it is just that Saddam was not deeply involved in them. Less than two years after President Bush's address, it emerged that A Q Khan, the head of Pakistan's nuclear weapons effort, had been selling nuclear technology to Libya, and probably to North Korea too.

However, the failure of Mr Bush's policy can be measured as much by the fact that North Korea carried out its first nuclear test in 2006 and Iran redoubled its efforts, as in the carnage of Iraq. We cannot be sure that a more intelligent policy would have restrained North Korea or Iran over the past seven and a half years. But at least we now have a chance to find out.

Barack Obama's most striking policy shift on entering the White House was to hold out the hand of friendship to countries willing to unclench their fists. It will not produce instant results, and may not avert disaster, but it offers a better chance than what went before.

Before the result was announced by the Iranian government yesterday, President Obama said that Iran's "robust debate" during the presidential campaign was evidence that change is possible.

Once again, the Western media coverage of the election has reminded us that young people in Iran in particular are enthused by democracy and are by no means hostile to so-called Western values. But the new US President is also firm about the unacceptability of the Iranian regime joining the nuclear club, and in reserving the ultimate option of military force.

The dangers of nuclear weapons in the hands of people in Tehran or Pyongyang who resist engagement are as frightening as ever, but it feels as if the US administration is more likely to be part of the solution than contributing to the problem.

President Bush has gone, but the threats that he sought so clumsily to describe are still there. That is testament to the failure of his policies. But, much more important, it is a challenge to his successor, and those that wish him well, to prove that there are better and more effective ways of curbing al-Qa'ida-style terrorism, the dangerous anachronism of North Korean totalitarianism and, above all, the threat of nuclear proliferation.