REPUBLICANS used to criticize the Clinton team for spouting tough moral rhetoric on foreign policy, then failing to follow through. "Talk big and carry a twig" was the charge leveled against Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
So how come President Bush has let himself get snarled in a rhetorical trap that makes Albright's polemics look puny?
A new Bush doctrine - unveiled in his State of the Union address the week before last - labels Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an "axis of evil." The president indicated that the United States would confront "states like these" that "sponsor terror" and build weapons of mass destruction.
Yet, since Bush's speech, friends and enemies alike are struggling to figure out what the president meant by his salvo. "Axis of evil" sounds great. It reeks of Reaganism. (Remember his "evil empire" sobriquet for the Soviet Union?) It resurrects memories of World War II battles against Germany and Japan. But "axis of evil" is careless hyperbole.
This euphonious phrase lumps together dissimilar regimes whose dangerous policies must be countered with different approaches. It (incorrectly) implies that military action against all three is pending.
Worst of all, the lazy phraseology threatens to undercut the very fight against terrorism that it is meant to support. How so?
If the administration wants to succeed in the next phase of antiterrorism it must focus all its efforts on the key battles to come.
First priority: Help stabilize Afghanistan. If that country (where Osama bin Laden might still be hiding) slinks back into chaos, our antiterror struggle will turn into a sham.
Second priority: Decide whether and how Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq can be changed, and whether the United States should undertake a risky military effort alone.
These challenges are huge, and tossing North Korea into the mix only detracts attention from the pressing issues of Afghanistan and Iraq. North Korea does possess weapons of mass destruction, but the way to confront this threat is to resume promising talks begun under the Clinton administration.
As for linking Iran to the "axis of evil," this move undercuts the pursuit of priorities one and two.
Yes, Iran is trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and the U.S. government believes that hard-line factions within the regime have been aiding terrorists who seek to launch attacks on Israel. The administration is right to condemn such behavior.
But Iran is a nation in the throes of political upheaval. A youthful population overwhelmingly elected a reformist government that has been paralyzed by clerical hard-liners. Change in Iran will come from revolution within. The administration should commend the democracy-seeking Iranian public, not toss the country in with its archenemy Iraq.
Moreover, Iranian cooperation is essential to stabilize Afghanistan. All Iranian factions opposed the Taliban, and the regime cooperated with the United States in setting up the new Afghan central government. Although some Iranian factions are reportedly sending arms and money to Afghan warlords, officials of the new Afghan government don't believe that Tehran is out to undermine the interim government in Kabul.
In a recent interview in New York, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told me that "the worsening of relations between Iran and the United States will have a negative impact on the region. We need calm, and this will destabilize the situation. The war on terrorism is still on, and the terrorists will benefit."
Afghan officials fear that deteriorating U.S.-Iranian relations will undercut the new level of cooperation among Afghanistan's neighbors, the United States and Russia, and provoke a return to the dark days when these countries competed with each other over the country's broken carcass.
"It is not fair to put Iran in the same group as Iraq," the minister said. "Democratic procedures are going on in Iran, and there are problems, but conflict with the United States will take opportunity away from those who want reform. Better relations between the United States and Iran will serve stability in the region. What is needed in this part of the world is stability to prevent the forces of evil from returning."
Beyond its destabilizing effect on Afghanistan, a U.S.-Iranian set-to will undercut American efforts to forge a coherent strategy to oust Saddam Hussein. Should it undertake that challenge, the administration would need Tehran's cooperation to let thousands of armed Iraqi exiles cross from Iran to fight in their homeland. Such permission isn't assured, but it surely will be refused if we are at total odds with Tehran.
Which makes one wonder who concocted that phrase "axis of evil." The administration let the lure of oratory obscure requirements of the war against terror.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.