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Obama Confronts Bush’s Axis of Evil’ — Can He Do Better?

The Obama administration is confronting what’s left of the “axis of evil— this week, with the president in the Mideast talking about Iran and top aides in the Far East dealing with North Korea.

[IMGCAP(1)]The strategy in both cases is the same: Enlist “friends— like Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea and China to pressure the two rogue states to stop developing nuclear arsenals.

President George W. Bush, author of the “axis of evil— concept, toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, but got nowhere containing Iran and North Korea, either with policies of rigid isolation or, later, multilateral diplomacy.

Now, with Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges spinning and North Korea testing both nuclear weapons and missiles, it’s Obama’s turn — and top aides are fully aware that the two challenges are linked.

“Whatever we do with respect to North Korea is going to be closely watched by Iran,— a senior White House aide told me.

“They’ll make judgments about whether we are effective and serious or whether we are just talking and will let things proceed apace. Everybody understands the calculus here. It’s an important moment.—

The public focus of President Barack Obama’s Mideast trip is on his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, but he’s also talking about Iran in Saudi Arabia. The senior official “is more concerned about Iran than about Israel.—

Iran also was a major focus of Obama’s meetings last month with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who reportedly left satisfied that Obama shares his belief that Iran’s nuclear program presents a mortal danger to Israel.

The huge question is: Can Obama induce Iran to stop working on nukes before Israel believes it has to attack its installations — and before Saudi Arabia makes a decision that it has to become a nuclear power, too?

Also this week, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is leading a delegation of White House, Defense and Treasury department officials, plus special North Korea envoy Stephen Bosworth, to China in hopes of getting it to pressure Pyongyang into halting its aggressive testing program.

Obama is scheduled to make a visit of his own to China in July. Officials say that another key part of the “axis— strategy is to enlist Russia. Obama visits Moscow in November.

It’s clear that Obama prefers more “engagement— with adversaries and allies than Bush did, at least in his first term, but it remains to be seen what Obama can get out of it.

Obama is offering to send special envoy Dennis Ross to talk to Iran, but Iran hasn’t responded. And, in what some observers think was a huge blunder, Obama said Iran would have until the end of the year to show whether it was interested in “good-faith negotiations.—

When he was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, Obama presumably asked King Abdullah to demand that China choose between getting its oil from Saudi Arabia or Iran — in hopes the right choice will put economic pressure on Iran.

In the case of North Korea, such a three-corner shot isn’t necessary: China, reportedly “livid— with recent North Korean behavior, has the power to utterly cut off North Korea’s lifeline to get it to stop menacing its neighbors.

In 2006, after North Korea launched a long-range missile and conducted a failed nuclear test, China halted fuel and other exports to North Korea for three days to express its displeasure.

It could clearly do the same — or worse — right now. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), just back from a trip to China, said he told officials there “bluntly— that they should do so, and said he hoped Obama’s team would do the same.

“We should tell the Chinese that if they do not control North Korea and Iran, they will become the father of two more nuclear nations, Saudi Arabia and Japan,— Kirk said.

Japan’s nuclear power plants, he said, have produced 1.5 tons of plutonium, enough for 7,000 nuclear warheads. “If North Korea shows it can develop a deliverable weapon, Japan could become the second biggest nuclear-armed country in the world over a weekend.—

According to Korea expert Jack Pritchard, though, China fears that if it uses its economic power against North Korea, it might fail — or, worse, succeed.

Pritchard, a top official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations and now president of the Korea Economic Institute, told me that North Korea might stubbornly reject Chinese pressure, hurting China’s prestige. Or it might collapse in an embargo, hurting China’s security.

He said that the administration should focus on stopping North Korea from selling missiles, nuclear material and technology.

Kirk said one way to do that is to include China in the Bush-era Proliferation Security Initiative, which gives signatories the right to stop ships and seize suspect cargoes.

And, then, there’s missile defense, which Bush moved to deploy against both Iran and North Korea, but which Obama is curtailing.

Even though Bush has the reputation of being tougher on adversaries than Obama might be, Pritchard observes that Bush did nothing in response to North Korea’s sale of a nuclear reactor to Syria, which Israel bombed in 2007.

Bush removed one corner of the “axis of evil,— but left two others to his successor as growing menaces. Whether Obama can do more than negotiate United Nations sanctions resolutions remains to be seen.