White House foreign policy has shifted

Times Staff Writer

Beset by dangers abroad and rivals at home, the Bush administration has embarked on a broad adjustment of its foreign policy in hopes of using its final two years to improve a record now widely viewed as a failure.

Since January, an administration known for stubbornly holding to its positions has launched a new Mideast peace initiative and reopened diplomatic channels with North Korea, Syria and Iran. And as President Bush arrives today in Brazil, he brings a new approach to Latin America.

However, these moves mark a course correction rather than an overhaul. The administration’s primary approach for dealing with adversaries such as Iran and North Korea still combines economic and political pressure with confrontational rhetoric.

Yet the White House is showing a willingness to consider strategies more acceptable to allies as well as to the Democratic-controlled Congress, which increasingly threatens to obstruct the administration’s path.


“There’s a little more than a year and a half before the election, and they recognize that they’re in a hole,” said James Dobbins, a former diplomat and Bush administration envoy now at Rand Corp. “They’re bowing to reality and abandoning prior positions.... They’re looking for a variety of ways to demonstrate that they’re still relevant and still have room for accomplishment.”

Last week, the administration said it would talk to Syrian and Iranian officials at upcoming regional meetings on Iraq. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the decision to participate with a flourish on Capitol Hill, but she and others have long maintained that U.S. officials would meet in a group setting with Syrians or Iranians. Moreover, it remains unclear whether these contacts will grow into a broader engagement between U.S. officials and the two regimes.

In the meantime, the maneuver may have helped the administration win points with Muslim and European allies, who have been pushing for a greater U.S. willingness to talk to Damascus and Tehran.

The move also undercuts the critique of Democratic lawmakers, as well as some Republicans, that the administration has been willing to threaten enemies but not to talk to them.

Rice faces formidable obstacles in her effort to invigorate Mideast peace talks by holding the first discussion in six years on the subject of a future Palestinian state. But the bid was well received by Arab and European governments, which are under public pressure to push the U.S. toward peace talks.

A serious administration effort “would receive so much credit in the Arab world, in Europe and other places, for simply moving the process in the right direction,” a senior European envoy said.

Bush’s new approach to Latin America, which emphasizes social justice as well as free trade and democratic governance, is aimed in part at countering the populist and leftist arguments of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The message is designed to blunt the critique in the U.S. and in the region that Bush, despite early pledges, has had little interest in Latin America since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The administration seems to be adjusting its policy regarding Pakistan, as well, in the face of a threat to one of its few foreign policy credits.


The White House has held out the ouster of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan as one of its foreign policy accomplishments. But amid signs of a Taliban resurgence and the growing presence of Al Qaeda in the border areas of Pakistan, the administration has put new pressure on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to crack down.

Musharraf is also under pressure from Congress, but until now he had been partially shielded by his personal relationship with Bush.

Bush’s shifts are a recognition that the United States will not succeed diplomatically “unless it is willing to engage in a more serious fashion with the needs of other countries,” said Nikolas K. Gvosdev, editor of the National Interest, a foreign policy journal.

“The cosmetic ‘coalition of the willing’ we had in Iraq isn’t sufficient to get things done,” Gvosdev said.


The moves also reflect, in part, the ascendancy of Rice and her State Department team over hawks once led by Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

State Department officials have long argued that the United States should create at least an opportunity for broader contacts with Iran and Syria through regional gatherings.

The new Middle East initiative was hatched by Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and has been kept alive by Rice’s personal support.

There have been signs that Rice and her team are more committed to the initiative than is Bush, who has refused to pressure Israel to make concessions. White House officials have said little publicly to indicate they support the initiative.


But the departure of Rumsfeld and the appointment of Robert M. Gates as Defense secretary have eased some barriers to a shift toward greater diplomatic engagement. Gates has been a Rice ally in the past and has argued publicly for greater engagement with Iran.

“He’s a team player and a realist in a way that clearly enhances what she’s trying to do,” said Dov Zakheim, who was a senior Pentagon official early in the administration.

Bush and Rice usually deflect questions about their legacy, saying they expect to be judged by the effect of their policies over the long term. But both face the risk that their foreign policy record will be eclipsed by the calamity of Iraq, just as former President Carter’s foreign policy legacy was overshadowed by the Iran hostage crisis.

Unless Iraq is stabilized soon, Gvosdev said, “this will be their Iran crisis.”