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.
Its war last summer with Hezbollah in Lebanon, for which the Bush administration supplied weaponry to Israel along with tacit political support, left Beirut in ruins and the Israeli and Lebanese governments traumatized, and enhanced the regional sway of Hezbollah.
With Muslim support growing for Islamic extremists in the region who claim to be fighting on behalf of the Palestinians, Jordan's King Abdullah made an impassioned plea last week to a joint session of Congress.
"We need all hands on deck," Abdullah said. "The international community, especially the United States, must be engaged in moving the process forward."
Rice has explained her newly aggressive involvement in the dispute by saying that conditions are finally right for progress. She has been studying previous Middle East peace efforts, especially the effort by President Bill Clinton just before Bush took office, by requesting a stack of reports from the State Department historian's office.
Last month's administration decision to sit down with Iran and Syria at a conference on Iraq, and to open the door to bilateral talks in that context, has been portrayed as another triumph of Bush's patient diplomatic strategy.
"It is not just this sudden rush to engage with Iran," said a senior State Department official. "Instead, we will selectively look for opportunities to leverage a change in their behavior. That is diplomacy."
Yet as recently as three months ago, Bush insisted that there was no reason to sit at the table with Iran -- on any subject -- unless it took the first step of suspending its nuclear program and stopping support for terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere.
"It's really interesting to talk about conversations with these countries -- which is fine; I can understand why people speculate about it," Bush told reporters in December. But "these countries have now got the choice to make. If they want to sit down at the table with the United States, it's easy -- just make some decisions that will lead to peace, not to conflict."
None of Bush's demands has been met. But U.S. officials believe Iran feels increasingly squeezed by U.N. Security Council sanctions related to its nuclear program, the dispatch of two U.S. carrier groups to the Persian Gulf and new attention paid to Iranian activities in Iraq. "We feel the context is different today than just three months ago," the State Department official said.
The White House feels similarly misunderstood on North Korea, as it engages in bilateral nuclear weapons negotiations that were similarly rejected for most of Bush's six years in office. The discussions have progressed so quickly that U.S. and North Korean officials met in New York last week to begin talks on normalizing relations.
In 2002, the Bush administration declared dead a Clinton-era deal known as the Agreed Framework after it said that North Korea violated the terms by developing a clandestine uranium enrichment program. The Clinton accord was negotiated bilaterally, but Bush argued that any future agreement had to be negotiated with North Korea's neighbors at the table -- China, South Korea, Japan and Russia -- and insisted that there would be no bilateral contact until all of Pyongyang's nuclear programs were dismantled.
"The president's view is that's the kind of conditioning you need to do if diplomacy and negotiations are going to be successful," the senior administration official said. "What he needed to do was create an environment, a structure of pressure and influence."
But Asian diplomats and even some U.S. officials said that the new agreement, to exchange U.S. aid for a "freeze" of the nuclear programs and a North Korean pledge to dismantle them eventually, probably could have been reached years ago, but was rejected by the United States. In the meantime, North Korea has performed a nuclear weapons test.
Cheney and Rumsfeld had long objected to direct talks with North Korea, and Rumsfeld's departure appeared to have played a key role in allowing last month's deal to go forward, diplomats and officials said. As U.S. negotiators haggled with North Korean officials in a meeting in January in Berlin that helped seal the agreement, Rice telephoned Bush from Germany, and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley walked the president through its terms line by line. The layers of interagency discussion that had previously thwarted policy toward North Korea were simply eliminated.