In his State of the Union address, President Bush warned that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq “constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world” and that “by seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.” Interestingly enough, the president did not make a single direct reference either to al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. Yet just two weeks after the State of the Union, the director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, testified before Congress that al Qaeda was trying to rebuild its network, resume its operations, and remained capable of another large-scale attack against the United States. At the same time, the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden—as well as a large number of al Qaeda’s top leadership—remains a mystery.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Al Qaeda is the one terrorist group with global reach that attacked the United States on Sept. 11. Osama bin Laden was the driving force behind that attack. It has not been shown that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq support Al Qaeda or are complicit in the planning, financing, or execution of the Sept. 11 attack. And they are not known to be providing safe haven for Al Qaeda as did the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. How then, has the threat expanded from terrorist groups of global reach to an axis of evil comprised of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq?

North Korea is no longer an active state sponsor of terrorism. It’s nuclear weapons program and long-range ballistic missile program are both currently considered to be on hold. Tensions on the Korean peninsula are at an all-time low as a result of South Korea’s “sunshine policy” of economic incentives to the North. That seems like progress in the right direction rather than an imminent threat.

Iran was actually cooperative with the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and played a key role in the Bonn meetings that resulted in the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. Plus Iran is one of the few Muslim countries in the world actually showing signs of possible democratic and cultural reform. Again, that seems like progress in the right direction. Furthermore, the terrorist organizations that Iran does support—such as Hezbollah, HAMAS, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command—do not currently focus their attacks against the United States. So why go out of the way to give them reason and motivation to put the United States squarely in their sights?

Iraq is admittedly a thorn in the side of the United States—a classic case of “blowback.” The United States originally supported Saddam Hussein in an effort to counterbalance Iran and the Muslim fundamentalist regime of the Ayatollah Khomeni. But Hussein has since become a threat after invading Kuwait in 1991 and the subsequent Persian Gulf War to expel Iraq. And the primary reason Iraq is even considered a threat at all is because the U.S. national security establishment perpetuates the myth of needing to defend Persian Gulf Oil. But oil is not a national security issue. It is an economic issue. And economists from across the political spectrum—including two Nobel Laureates, the liberal James Tobin and free marketeer Milton Friedman—agree that going to war for oil is unneeded. The bottom line is that the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf need to sell oil more than the United States and other countries need to buy it.

The bottom line is that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are comparatively weak nations, both economically and militarily. They have, in fact, become less of a threat—unless the United States insists on intervening in their respective regions.

Rather than needlessly resurrecting and antagonizing such enemies—none of whom have attacked the U.S. homeland or present a direct threat to U.S. national security—and putting them in a position where conflict seems a foregone conclusion, the United States needs to first finish the job against the those who did attack the country and still represent a real threat to inflict great harm: the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Their training camps in Afghanistan may be destroyed, but the worldwide network—operating in more than 60 countries—is still largely intact. Their leader is still presumably alive, as is most of the rest of the leadership.

Instead of being pre-occupied with perceived unfinished business with other countries, the United States needs to remain focused on the business at hand. The United States can ill-afford to be tilting at windmills while Al Qaeda remains at large and able to operate.