Comity Central

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, November 23, 2005

This is the season for memorable banquets. In 1621, the Pilgrims sat down with the Indians in Plymouth. Yesterday, the Bushies broke bread with the Clintonites at the State Department.

Beneath the crystal chandeliers of the Benjamin Franklin Room, the leaders of once-warring Bosnian ethnic groups gathered over plates of wild-mushroom-encrusted salmon and glasses of fum blanc to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Dayton accords ending the Balkan war.

But the Croats, Serbs and Muslims weren't the only feuding foes to come to the table. Taking seats of honor were Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger and Clinton U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke; a dozen other Clinton administration officials were dispersed throughout the room. And at the microphone stood Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, praising them.

"I'm pleased to see Sandy Berger and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who is of course the architect of Dayton," Rice announced to the bipartisan luncheon. "Thank you for the lasting contribution to peace you made and continue to make."

Is this the same Bush administration that disparaged Clinton administration peacekeeping efforts?

Not exactly. After spending nearly five years blaming the previous administration for everything from recession to the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush and his aides have found new affection for their predecessors.

On Monday morning, Vice President Cheney praised President Bill Clinton's 1998 bombing of Iraq. On Monday night, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman again hailed Clinton's "four days of intensive bombing." (Never mind that at the time many GOP lawmakers said Clinton was trying to distract from impeachment.) Bush, too, has been invoking Clinton's name to justify prewar intelligence and free trade. And when Prince Charles visited the White House for dinner recently, the Bushes brought out the Clinton china.

Then there was Rice's reception for the Clinton crowd yesterday. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright was on hand as Rice placed a wreath honoring three American diplomats killed in Bosnia in 1995. As Rice signed an agreement with the Bosnian foreign minister, Clinton administration national security aides Jim Steinberg, Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick, Jim Dobbins, Donald Hays, Jim Pardu and others hobnobbed nearby beneath an oil painting of Clinton Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark missed the lunch because of a flight delay.

"It was a Clinton team reunion in the Rice State Department," exulted Holbrooke afterward. "This was an unusually bipartisan day in a partisan city."

This new friendship has not gone unnoticed by conservatives. Noting that Rice has brought in Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill -- both of whom worked with Holbrooke -- the New York Sun complained that "we've gotten a State Department of Kerry-ites." The conservative newspaper took particular issue with Burns, who "studied in France . . . and speaks French."

Mon dieu! Even the menu for yesterday's luncheon showed evidence of Rice's perfidy: Potato gratine . Pistachio genoise . Pumpkin-ginger charlotte . And not a freedom fry in the house.

There were plenty of explanations for Rice's gesture, ranging from the high-minded (outside of Iraq, there are many foreign-policy issues on which the two sides agree) to the administration's political woes ("They were sinking so much on so many fronts, they had to reach out," one Democrat gloated).

To be sure, Rice placed Bosnia neatly within the Bush administration's worldview. Rice, who once belittled the operation by saying that the U.S. military shouldn't be "escorting kids to kindergarten" in Bosnia, praised Balkans policy as "a bipartisan American effort for the past 15 years." She posited that it was "yet another example of how democracy can help diverse people live together without fear." And she noted that Bosnia is working "to fight for the freedoms of others in Iraq and to fight terrorism across the globe."

But her embrace of the opposition was a marked change from the first term. Back then, Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer blamed Clinton for rising Middle East violence. Bush aide Karen Hughes assigned Clinton blame for the Enron scandal. Bush complained that he "inherited" a recession from Clinton. And Attorney General John Ashcroft blamed Clinton for "the September 11th problem," saying "our government had blinded itself to its enemies."

By contrast, Rice yesterday recalled the autumn of 1995, when "the United States and our NATO allies helped the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina fight back." She said, "We supported our just demands with real force and paved the way for diplomacy to prevail, and it prevailed in a small Ohio city."

Holbrooke listened intently, chin in hand. Berger nodded. And the foreign policy establishment was unified, at least while the genoise lasted.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company