Policy Successes -- or U-Turns

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice contends that apparent turnarounds in administration policy abroad are the result of patient work over the past six years. Others see a response to the failure of previous policies.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice contends that apparent turnarounds in administration policy abroad are the result of patient work over the past six years. Others see a response to the failure of previous policies. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By Karen DeYoung and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 11, 2007

If all goes according to plan, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will sit down next month with the foreign ministers of Iran and North Korea -- two "axis of evil" nations that the Bush administration has long shunned. And after criticizing her predecessors for pointless diplomatic shuttling in the Middle East, Rice now makes near-monthly negotiating trips there.

Administration officials insist that what appears to be a sudden turn toward diplomacy is rather the fruit of six years of careful and deliberate policymaking. But outside experts, and even some insiders, say that the initiatives have less to do with reaping rewards than with reversing course after years of policy stagnation and failure.

"What has changed?" asked one former high-level Bush administration official. "That we finally like these people? That we finally have them where we want them? Or gee, we're at 30 percent [public approval] and we've only got 20 months to go?

"Ultimately, North Korea and Iran will be solved through diplomatic means," the former official said. "I think we've been slow in applying those means and seeing the reality of the situation." This source and others who are sympathetic to the goals of the administration but who nevertheless question its path to those ends declined to be named because the discussion was about policy matters, as did several current senior officials.

One senior administration official sharply denied any flip-flop and expressed exasperation about reports that difficulties in Iraq and President Bush's plummeting popularity have brought a shift. "Everybody suddenly announced that this is a policy change," the official said. "On the contrary, it's a sign of success."

Some current officials said that the departure of Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary and the Pentagon's withdrawal from frontline foreign policymaking have made diplomacy easier. Rumsfeld, along with Vice President Cheney, argued for years that talking with North Korea and Iran would "reward bad behavior." And Bush agreed with them that his political capital should not be wasted on an intractable Middle East peace process.

New Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has largely limited his foreign policy input to Iraq, officials said. Rice, after resisting diplomatic outreach to all but close allies for much of her first two years as secretary of state, is said to be convincing the president that diplomacy even with difficult regimes is now the right way to go.

Philip D. Zelikow, counselor to Rice until earlier this year and now a history professor at the University of Virginia, said the switch was set in motion last fall.

"The change at the Pentagon helped," he said. But "the political difficulties of the administration have strengthened Rice's willingness to join with the president in offering some strong leadership in this area."

Close allies have pressed the administration for years to step up its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and recent high-level visitors to Washington from the region have warned that the crisis has reached a tipping point.

"We see time running out," said one senior Arab official. While the administration has turned to Arab governments for help in Iraq, "there are a lot of Arab and Muslim countries that doubt the American commitment" to address their regional concerns, the official said. "There hasn't been any [peace] process since 2000" and the administration has only recently begun to "understand that the stakes have gone up. . . . They've begun to connect the dots between the different crises in the Middle East."

Both the Israeli government and U.S.-approved Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been weakened politically in recent months. Israel has expanded its settlements in the West Bank and made new territorial inroads in Jerusalem, even as it has remained under terrorist attack.

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