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U.S. Talks With Iran Exemplify Bush's New Approaches
In a Matter of Days, Administration Announces Change of Tactics Toward Onetime 'Axis of Evil'

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

WACO, Tex., July 19 -- With his moves last week involving Iraq, Iran and North Korea, President Bush accelerated a shift toward centrist foreign policies, a change that has cheered Democrats, angered some Republicans and roiled the presidential campaign.

Bush sent his first high-level emissary to sit in on nuclear talks with Iran, which ended without agreement Saturday. Also in the past two days, the president agreed for the first time to set a "time horizon" for withdrawing troops from Iraq, and authorized Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to join North Korean diplomats at six-party talks about ending that country's nuclear weapons program.

The maneuvers underscore how much the Bush administration has changed since 2002, when the president proclaimed Iraq, Iran and North Korea to be an "axis of evil." Now Bush is pushing forward with diplomatic gestures toward Iran and North Korea while breaking with a long-held position on troop withdrawals in the interest of harmony with the Iraqi government.

Many Democrats view the developments as evidence that Bush is moving closer to military and diplomatic policies that their party's presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, has long advocated. The steps could also help the likely GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain, some analysts said, since he can now voice support for pulling out U.S. troops without appearing disloyal to Bush.

At the same time, Bush's moves have agitated conservatives, including some former administration officials, who believe that he has abandoned principles set forth during his first term to embrace a more accommodating posture pushed by Rice and her supporters.

John R. Bolton, a former United Nations ambassador for Bush who has become one of his most vocal conservative critics, likened the developments to breaches in a dam that is about to burst. "Once the collapse begins, adversaries have a real opportunity to gain advantage," he said Saturday. "In terms of the Bush presidency, this many reversals this close to the end destroys credibility. . . . It appears there is no depth to which this administration will not sink in its last days."

Former White House Middle East director Flynt Leverett, who has criticized the administration for being too hawkish, said the moves on Iraq, Iran and North Korea were signs of "tactical desperation," adding: "It's a recognition that if they don't make these moves, they'll be left with nothing."

White House officials bristle at such criticisms, saying that partisans on both sides have misinterpreted tactical decisions as policy changes. Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for Bush's National Security Council, said Saturday that the moves were "fruits of the diplomatic labor that we've been engaged in in the last couple of years."

"The actions that we've taken this week are all tactical moves brought about by the overarching strategy that the president has put in place," he added.

One of the administration's most surprising shifts came in regard to Iran. The White House has repeatedly refused to engage directly with Tehran until the Islamic republic stops its work toward enriching uranium. But Undersecretary of State William J. Burns joined other foreign envoys in Geneva on Saturday as they met with Iran's top nuclear negotiator.

U.S. officials have said the decision to send Burns was intended to further unify the international coalition that opposes Iran's nuclear work. Those nations have offered a package of economic, political and security incentives to Iran if it halts uranium enrichment and agrees to begin negotiations on the matter. Burns's appearance, the officials said, might help break the impasse with Tehran.

But European envoy Javier Solana told reporters that the talks were inconclusive and that Iran needs to give a more definitive answer to the offer within two weeks. Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili described the talks as "constructive and progressing."

European officials said they were disappointed by the Iranian response. Jalili did not respond directly to Burns's presentation, but simply responded with generalities, one official said.

U.S. officials privately suggested that the Iranians were flummoxed by Burns's presence. "They clearly were not able to get their act together to give an answer," one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I think we have the Iranians on the back foot."

On Iraq, the White House joined Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Friday in announcing an agreement to set "aspirational" goals for a U.S. troop drawdown. It marked a significant new posture for Bush, who has often ridiculed Democratic proposals for what he has described as "artificial" timetables.

Johndroe and other White House officials said the agreement is consistent with Bush's long-held requirement that any withdrawals from Iraq be based on security conditions. Those have improved markedly this year in part because of a temporary increase in the number of troops, whose stay in Iraq is coming to an end.

But administration officials also acknowledge that the agreement was necessary because of growing Iraqi political pressure for a withdrawal timeline. Indeed, Maliki said in an interview published Saturday in a German magazine that he supports Obama's proposal for a 16-month phased withdrawal of U.S. combat troops.

"The Americans have found it difficult to agree on a concrete timetable for the exit because it seems like an admission of defeat to them. But it isn't," Der Spiegel quoted Maliki as saying.

Jon B. Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the administration's combined steps on Iraq, Iran and North Korea could also end up helping McCain.

"With the administration adopting more centrist positions, McCain doesn't have to try to navigate between a more right-wing administration and a more left-wing opponent," Alterman said. "He can say he supports the administration position, and that position will be supported by more Americans."

Staff writers Glenn Kessler and Michael Abramowitz in Washington contributed to this report.

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