San Diego Business Journal 'North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.'

, President Bush in his January 2002 State of the Union address in Congress

And so how is the infamous "Axis of Evil" doing these days?

It has been about four years since President Bush first notified us of its existence and declared his resolute commitment to its decline and fall.

Four years is a good chunk of time.

Let's check out what's going on in North Korea.

It doesn't seem that much has changed there, certainly no regime change that anyone can see. Kim Jong Il looks still to be in charge, and the country's weapons of mass destruction programs appear to be intact. The ongoing Six-Party Talks, organized and hosted by China, made important progress when North Korea formally agreed to the principle of a denuclearized Korean peninsula.

But the government insists it still possesses nuclear weapons; and, just recently, two short-range missiles were tested within its borders.

No disarmament has been implemented.

Let's check out the second member of the president's axis.

Public enemy No. 2 is Iran, whose hard-line fundamentalist religious regime has not abandoned its nuclear-weapons program either. In fact, it has been flaunting that program on the international stage and resisting efforts to curb its worrisome nuclear capabilities.

"The United States may have the power to cause harm and pain," said an Iranian negotiator recently, "but it is also susceptible to harm and pain. So if the United States wants to pursue that path, let the ball roll."

And so the Iranian front on the war against the Axis of Evil looks rather glum too.

The mere mention of "harm and pain" leads us to the third and last Axis member: Iraq.

With Iraq, the world has indeed witnessed regime change. Saddam Hussein rules no more, toppled by U.S. and British military intervention. But the "shock and awe" campaign that beheaded the Hussein government left the Iraqi people in a withering state of chaos, harm and pain.

The easy analogy for this mess might be the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam four decades ago. But the better analogy may be the British intervention three decades before that, in what was then better known as Mesopotamia. That intervention appeared to have done little more than create societal havoc, and the meltdown became even more perfervid when a despairing British public compelled London to abruptly pull its forces out.

How the United States will now extricate itself from Iraq, given the current chaos, is anyone's guess.

In short, to the extent that the Axis of Evil was ever a correct perception of a foreign policy problem and goal , as opposed to nothing more than windy presidential rhetoric that blew the country down a bad road , is a real problem that is now as bad, if not worse than ever.

The source of this bad-to-worse syndrome is the continued American belief in the primacy of fast-acting military power over slow-but-steady persuasion.

That's the theme of an important book on contemporary American foreign policy mistakes and misconceptions. The title is "Taming American Power," by the academic dean of Harvard University's famed John F. Kennedy School of Government, Stephen M. Walt.

Tremendous military force can produce both results wanted and unwanted. Americans generally do not realize that as many nations and peoples resent that power as those who welcome it.

When such force is exercised in the absence of considered and widespread international backing, it galvanizes our enemies and tempts those sitting on the fence to either stay there , or, worse yet, side with our critics if only to maintain a semblance of a global balance of power.

"Instead of telling the world what to do and how to live , a temptation that both neoconservative empire-builders and liberal internationalists find hard to exist," writes Walt, "the United States should lead the world primarily by its example. Americans remain remarkably ignorant of the world they believe is their obligation and destiny to run, and the topic of foreign affairs captures public attention only when major mistakes have already been made."

It's a mistake to dump three different issues into the same slick Axis of Evil basket. Each of these countries presents its own issues and problems. But if we were to accept the president at his word and by his triad of terror standard, then we would have to say that the world situation today is worse than it was four years ago. And that's saying something.

Tom Plate is a UCLA professor, former editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.