- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2002

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle yesterday retreated from his criticism of President Bush for calling Iran, Iraq and North Korea an "axis of evil" in the war on terrorism.
"What I said was that I think it is important for us to stand united in our determination to reduce the tension and to deal directly with these three countries," Mr. Daschle said, backing away from remarks that even some of his top lieutenants did not support.
"There is no difference between myself and the president on the importance that we all put on dealing directly with these three countries," he said.
In a television interview Monday night, the South Dakota Democrat said Mr. Bush was wrong to label the three nations as an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address Jan. 29.
"We've got to be very careful with the rhetoric of that kind," he told Jim Lehrer of PBS.
His comments renewed rifts in his party about whether to challenge the popular wartime president on foreign policy in an election year that finds Democrats searching for a winning issue.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, disagreed with Mr. Daschle's criticism, saying the president's "axis of evil" rhetoric didn't trouble him.
"The only criticism I have in fact it's not criticism, it's just an observation is that it's created more uncertainty than certainty," Mr. Biden said. "I have no problem with the president, if he believes it, calling a spade a spade. I don't mind the words; I am concerned with the lack of explanation."
But Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said the president was wielding "a clumsy club."
"It's a serious mistake," Mr. Kerry said of the president's phrasing. "It helps to strengthen the anti-American hand" in Iran.
And Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, accused Mr. Bush of "shooting from the hip."
Some Republicans, too, have been critical of the "axis of evil" phrase. For example, Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, said after attending a security conference in Munich that he wished Mr. Bush would "speak softly and carry a big stick."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Mr. Daschle's comments were "confusing" because Mr. Daschle endorsed the president's use of the phrase in an interview Jan. 30 on "Good Morning America."
Mr. Daschle said at the time, "We know that we've got to take more preventive action, and the president outlined some of the steps last night, and I think the Congress supports him."
He told CNN that same week the presidents' remarks were appropriate.
Mr. Fleischer said yesterday, "He was asked in that interview exactly about the 'axis of evil,' and at that time he had nothing negative to say about it. It just seems that something has changed with Senator Daschle. Perhaps he has had a change of opinion. But it does not appear that he's perfectly consistent."
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said Mr. Daschle's comments are more proof of his political plans for 2004.
"Only thing I can figure is he's going to run for president," Mr. Lott said. "I can't explain it any other way."
Mr. Lott told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce audience yesterday that Mr. Bush's rhetoric against nations that sponsor terrorism is having the same effect that President Reagan's "evil empire" remark had against the former Soviet Union.
"It could lead to needed change even in North Korea," Mr. Lott said. "It's important that we have a president that stands up and says what is the truth and needs to be said."
Mr. Daschle defended his criticism of the president to an extent, saying Mr. Bush's "axis of evil" accusation "conjures up the notion that we have a single-minded, unilateral policy affecting all three countries identically."
"I don't think that's the case," Mr. Daschle said. "First, it ought to be multilateral. Secondly, it has to be tailored and customized as it relates to each country. We're trying to do that."
Some Republicans said Mr. Daschle is casting about unsuccessfully for an issue.
"I think that Tom Daschle is just desperately trying to discredit the president every time the president says something," said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican. "And so far, nothing has taken."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell defended the president's remarks yesterday at a Senate Budget Committee hearing.
"The president's words in the State of the Union speak for themselves," Mr. Powell said. "As a matter of prudence, we ought to be looking at options with all three countries."
But he said Mr. Bush is not drawing up plans to invade any of those nations.
"He has no plan on his desk right now to begin a war with any nation," Mr. Powell told Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat. "If he did, I probably wouldn't tell you anyway."
Bill Sammon contributed to this article.


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