Explanation Time

Alon Ben-Meir teaches international relations at the New School University, New York, and is the Middle East project director at the World Policy Institute in New York.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Bush will undoubtedly boast about his administration's achievements during the last two years. But, try as he may to put the best spin on a number of major foreign policy issues, he will be hard-pressed to explain the government's many blunders.

Although Bush's commitment to do the right thing and safeguard our national interests has shaped his foreign policy initiatives, these policies have been at best counterproductive, at worst potentially disastrous.

Bush and his advisors came to the White House with an aversion to any major foreign policy objective or initiative supported by President Clinton. Their personal distaste for the former president has blinded them from seeing the merit in some of Clinton's soundest policies.

To name only three of these instances: The administration has insisted that Clinton invested too much of his political capital on the failed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, did not stand up to the North Koreans when it became known that they had an active nuclear program underway and allowed Saddam Hussein to amass weapons of mass destruction.

Bent on correcting what it saw as grave mistakes, the Bush administration shaped different strategies to deal with these and other issues. The result is that two years later the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has intensified to the brink of disaster, the prospects of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula are very real, and the United States is about to initiate a war against Iraq.

No objective observer can suggest that the Clinton policies were perfect. Yet they provided the basis on which a new administration could build. Regardless of how faulty were Clinton's mediating efforts at Camp David in 2000, he succeeded in bringing Israelis and Palestinians closer to an agreement than ever before. Instead of appointing a presidential envoy to bring all necessary pressure to bear on the two sides to make the final concessions for peace, the Bush administration totally rejected Clinton's peace formula, virtually leaving both sides to their own devices. Another choice would have prevented the disastrous escalation in hostilities and, in this respect, helped the war against terrorism by removing one of its major causes.

As for Bush's fixation on Hussein, it remains inexplicable. Yes, Hussein is a ruthless leader with an unsatiated appetite for weapons of mass destruction who must be disarmed. But with U.N. Resolution 1441 enforcing a much tougher inspection regime, we need to be clear and more patient about how we wish to achieve our objective, with war being a last resort.

If Iraq's declaration about its weapons program is incomplete or inaccurate, we must show evidence of this before we accuse it of noncompliance substantial enough to justify war. If the U.N. inspectors uncover no smoking gun, the administration must share its intelligence with them on the whereabouts of Iraq's forbidden weaponry.

In the end, we may have to go to war with Iraq because we've painted ourselves into a corner. But as opposition to war grows inside and outside the U.S., we can exert sustained political and military pressure on Iraq that could by itself eventually bring about a change in regime.

Turning to North Korea, the situation has now boiled over into a crisis. However much North Korea misbehaved by flagrantly violating its 1994 agreement with us, Bush's bellicose remarks have underscored our incredible immaturity in dealing with rogue states that operate according to values, historical perspectives and views of their place in the international community that are far different from our own.

At the outset, the administration basically severed all contact with this isolated nation. North Korea responded by raising the stakes: It secretly resumed the production of uranium in violation of the 1994 agreement; it evicted the inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency; and it withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and announced that it would soon resume missile testing. The North Koreans see these measures as deterrence against a preemptive attack by the United States. They are not entirely paranoid.

Why wouldn't the North Koreans assume that after we settle our score with Iraq, we will turn our guided bombs and missiles against them? Nothing can justify North Korea's reckless behavior. But refusing to negotiate because we do not want to appease or be blackmailed by Pyongyang deprives us of the leverage that negotiations offer. In any negotiation with North Korea, the U.S. must make its position and expectations consistently clear: North Korea must disassemble its nuclear program.

If we have no ill intentions toward North Korea, we should state this in face-to-face talks. Why is it OK to communicate through New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat (with the acquiescence of Secretary of State Colin Powell) but refuse to enter into substantive and direct talks that could defuse the crisis?

Pyongyang wants our attention; it despairs of receiving it, including any significant aid. It needs to see that a prospect for serious relief exists for its people. It is in our best interests, and those of our allies, especially South Korea and Japan, to neutralize the crisis and develop a cohesive strategy to deal with North Korea on a permanent basis. How Bush and his national security team end the crises in the Middle East and the Korean peninsula will have a tremendous effect on our moral leadership in the ever-changing global geopolitical landscape.

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