WASHINGTON - With only three months left in office, United States President
George W Bush appears increasingly determined to calm the international waters
he so vigorously churned up, especially during his first term.
In just the last several days, he has effectively rehabilitated a charter
member of the "axis of evil" - North Korea - by agreeing to take it off the
State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for
Pyongyang's agreement to resume its dismantling of a key nuclear facility and
cooperate with US and international inspectors.
As for the other surviving member of the axis, Iran, leaks from the State
Department and elsewhere over the last several days
suggest that Bush will announce Washington's intention to open a US Interest
Section in Tehran shortly after the November 4 presidential elections,
effectively re-establishing diplomatic relations that were broken off 29 years
Although both moves were foreseen already last summer, neo-conservatives and
other hawks in and outside the administration who have steadfastly opposed any
detente with either country are furious.
"It is ... the final crash and burn of a once-inspiring global effort to
confront and reverse nuclear proliferation, thereby protecting America and its
friends," wrote former UN ambassador John Bolton in Monday's Wall Street
Journal about the North Korea deal.
"Having bent the knee to North Korea, Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice
appears primed to do the same with Iran, despite that regime's egregious and
extensive involvement in terrorism and the acceleration of its nuclear
program," continued Bolton, who is often thought to express the off-the-record
views of Vice President Dick Cheney.
He predicted that Washington will actually open its Interest Section "within
days" after the election despite the fact that Tehran has not yet given its
approval. "Hard as it is to believe, there may be worse yet to come," Bolton
Worse for the hawks, the two moves also tend to undercut the foundering
election campaign of Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, in
precisely those very few remaining areas - national security and the "war on
terror" - in which, according to public opinion polls, he is generally
perceived as stronger and more experienced than his Democratic rival, Senator
McCain, who has joked about bombing Iran on the campaign trail, until recently
opposed any direct diplomatic engagement with Tehran unless it complied with UN
Security Council demands that it freeze its uranium-enrichment program. And he
reacted to the latest agreement with Pyongyang by effectively withholding his
"I expect the administration to explain exactly how this new verification
agreement advances American interests and those of its allies," he said after
the State Department announced that it would take Pyongyang off the terrorism
list. Obama, on the other hand, called the deal a "modest step forward".
Indeed, on a range of key foreign policy issues - including the priority to be
given to Israel-Palestinian peace talks, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia after
its intervention in Georgia, and even Taiwan, to which McCain supports several
big-ticket arms systems currently opposed by both the administration and Obama
- Bush now appears closer to the Democratic candidate than to his fellow
Many of McCain's closest advisers include neo-conservatives and nationalist
hawks whose views were decisive in shaping what became known as the "Bush
Doctrine" and inspiring the fateful US invasion of Iraq during the president's
In that respect, Bush's latest moves reflect the culmination of a "realist
restoration" during his second term, one that has witnessed a gradual decline
in the hawks' influence and a return to a more traditional reliance by
Washington on diplomacy and multilateralism, particularly in coordination with
key Western allies, as the preferred option for solving international problems.
That restoration has been led by Rice and senior career diplomats in the State
Department, the intelligence community, and, since late 2006, by Pentagon chief
Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff whose conviction that the US armed
forces are badly overstretched and cannot afford to fight yet another war, be
it on the Korean peninsula, the Middle East, or, for that matter, in the
Caucasus, has clearly had an impact in the Oval Office.
The current financial crisis has no doubt enhanced the White House's
appreciation for the degree to which the United States is dependent on foreign
powers - not all of them necessarily friendly - and their cooperation, thus
strengthening the realists' position as the administration plays out its term.
Their efforts - and now Bush's, too - are directed primarily at trying to undo
the damage to Washington's global position inflicted by the hawks not only
during their period of dominance from 9/11 to the end of the first term, but
also as a result of their furious rear-guard actions during the second term
against realist efforts to engage North Korea and Iran.
While North Korea's nuclear-weapons program was effectively frozen by a series
of accords between Pyongyang and the Bill Clinton administration between 1994
and 2001, Bush's refusal to continue where Clinton left off - as he had been
advised by his realist secretary of state at the time, retired General Colin
Powell - led to Pyongyang's withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
and eventually to its detonation of a nuclear device in Oct 2006.
Bush finally yielded to Rice's appeal to engage Pyongyang directly, a mission
undertaken by her Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs,
Christopher Hill. By then, however, Washington's hand had been so badly
weakened that Hill was forced to settle for a de-nuclearization accord that
inevitably fell short of Bush's one-time promise of a virtually full-proof
verification regime that would permit inspectors to go virtually anywhere at
any time to suspected, as well as known, nuclear sites.
To the bitter protests of the hawks, last weekend's announcement that North
Korea had been removed from the terrorism list in exchange for its agreement to
a more limited inspection regime confirmed that Bush had once more retreated
from his maximalist demands. "This isn't diplomacy, it's lunacy," one unnamed
former administration official told The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, who is
also known to be close to Cheney.
Realists - including members of the 2006 Iraq Study Group headed by former
secretary of state James Baker - have long urged Bush to drop preconditions for
direct negotiations with Tehran. In June, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs,
Admiral Michael Mullen called for a "broad dialogue" with Iran.
Less than one month later, Bush sent a senior State Department official to
participate for the first time in talks between the other permanent UN Security
Council members, Germany, and Iran, amid reports that Iran had successfully
tested advanced centrifuges that would permit it to accelerate its
uranium-enrichment program. He also tentatively agreed to Rice's idea of
opening an Interest Section at that time, but the announcement was reportedly
put off when Cheney and others opposed to the move argued that it could harm
McCain's election chances.
The well-connected Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported Sunday,
however, that the announcement will be made after the election in mid-November,
a report echoed by Bolton the following day.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the
neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.