Bush Set to Go With a Whimper, Not a Bang

With only three months left in office, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. interest section in Tehran shortly after the Nov. 4 presidential elections here, effectively reestablishing diplomatic relations that were broken off 29 years ago.

Although both moves were foreseen already last summer, neoconservatives and other hawks in and outside the administration who have steadfastly opposed any détente 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 concluded.

Worse for the hawks, the two moves also tend to undercut the foundering election campaign of Republican presidential candidate, Sen. 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, Sen. Barack Obama.

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 support.

"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 Republican.

Many of McCain’s closest advisers include neoconservatives and nationalist hawks whose views were decisive in shaping what became known as the "Bush Doctrine" and inspiring the fateful U.S. invasion of Iraq during the president’s first term.

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 her Department, the intelligence community, and, since late 2006, by Pentagon chief Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff whose conviction that the U.S. 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 rearguard 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, ret. Gen. 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 denuclearization 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, Adm. 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.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.