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Foreign horizons shrinking

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration is beginning its last year in office by quietly scaling back its foreign policy ambitions as it struggles with new obstacles and rapidly dwindling influence.

Only a few months ago, senior officials predicted that before their exit, they could deliver the Middle East peace deal that had eluded so many predecessors. But this month, as President Bush toured Israel and the West Bank, officials made it clear that the deal he’s now talking about is not a long-awaited final agreement, but a preliminary pact to set the terms for talks.

In addition, the administration’s efforts to get North Korea and Iran to end their nuclear programs have suffered deflating setbacks in recent weeks. And although the administration’s greatest foreign policy undertaking, Iraq, has seen encouraging security improvements, the goal of Iraqi political reconciliation remains distant.

The upshot is that the Bush administration is going to be spending the next year managing crises and tidying up messes until the next president takes over, rather than reaching legacy milestones, as officials recently had hoped.

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When speaking in public these days about the administration’s record, officials talk little about diplomatic breakthroughs, and more about laying sound foundations for those who will come after them. That shift reflects how little time Bush has left and how much work remains.

“It’s becoming clear that they’re not going to be able to achieve that much in the time that remains, and they’re simply having to adjust their ambitions,” said Gary Samore, a nonproliferation expert who served in a number of previous administrations and is now at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Bush’s foreign policy team had high hopes in 2007 that in the final stretch of a bruising two terms, it could eke out achievements to help offset the damage to the president’s record, much of it resulting from the calamities in Iraq. But in at least some instances, the efforts came after years of inaction, hobbling chances of success.

Reviving Mideast peace talks recently has become a top priority. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region eight times last year and held out hope of a final peace deal by the end of this year.

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In another push, the foreign policy team that largely replaced a more hawkish squad braved scorn from the political right by seeking a diplomatic opening with North Korea.

And its members believed they could complete a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India that would begin a major new strategic partnership with the ascendant Asian giant, and would be hailed in the United States as a towering diplomatic achievement.

Instead, as 2007 drew to a close, disappointments continued.

As recently as November, Rice stood next to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah and affirmed statements hours earlier by the Palestinian and Israeli leaders that a final peace deal could be reached by the end of 2008. Negotiations, she declared, “could achieve their goals within the time remaining within the Bush administration.”

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But in December and January, as preliminary talks between Israelis and Palestinians to set an agenda for negotiations got off to a rancorous start, U.S. officials began making it clear that their aim was now less ambitious. On Jan. 6, Bush told an Israeli interviewer that he was seeking a deal on “what a Palestinian state would look like.”

And in December, Rice had said that the goal in the Middle East is “a foundation” that can be passed “from one administration to another.”

U.S. officials hoped for more than that in North Korea. They thought last year that by offering concessions to spur talks, they were on the verge of a deal with Kim Jong Il to dismantle nuclear facilities and to eliminate fissile material in return for aid and normalized relations.

The warming seemed to have taken place with last month’s announcement that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra would perform in the North’s capital, Pyongyang.

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But the overture, which helped advance the long-stalled talks that also involve South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, has since stumbled with the North’s apparent unwillingness to fully disclose all aspects of its nuclear program. Administration officials consider this declaration essential; unless the United States knows what Pyongyang’s program included, it is impossible to judge North Korea’s compliance and move forward, they said. Pyongyang, however, says it has fulfilled its commitment.

Former State Department counselor Philip D. Zelikow described the American offers as a “diplomatic test” intended to determine whether the State Department could reverse North Korea’s weapons program.

Now, Zelikow said, it is “not clear if the diplomatic test will succeed.”

If it fails, he said, the United States will have to change tack and work with a new, more conservative South Korean government to develop a “comprehensive and patient policy.”

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One U.S. official said that the administration was still aiming high, but added: “What you can do versus what you end up doing is always different.”

Another official, presidential special envoy Jay Lefkowitz, said at a conservative think tank gathering recently that North Korea was likely to “remain in its present nuclear status” when a new U.S. administration takes office next year. Likewise regarding Iran, administration officials say they will continue to work with allies to pressure Tehran to halt its uranium enrichment efforts, which U.S. officials allege are aimed at developing a bomb.

But the effort was set back last month by a U.S. intelligence report that said Iran had suspended nuclear weapons work in 2003. The report convinced many Americans that there is no imminent danger from Iran, making it much harder for the administration to credibly threaten the use of military action. That in turn has taken the punch out of its diplomatic efforts.

Rice acknowledged the weakened U.S. position last month when she offered to negotiate directly with the Iranians if they would suspend enrichment, saying the U.S. has no permanent enemies. The statement was seen as part of wider efforts to establish contact with the Iranian government.

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In Rice’s offer “we’ve already seen some sign” that U.S. officials are adjusting their goals, Samore said.

But Tehran, which has long called for direct talks but without preconditions, didn’t respond to Rice’s offer.

There are signs that key American allies are reading these developments as signs that Bush’s influence is waning and they may need to look elsewhere for support.

One top White House goal has been to assemble a coalition of Arab states to stand against Iran. But even as Bush toured the region last week, some of the Persian Gulf nations reached out to Tehran and appeared to deliberately distance themselves from the president.

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Kuwait’s foreign minister, Mohammed Sabah Salim Sabah, met with his counterpart in Tehran and declared, “Iran is our friend.” The meeting, coming while Bush was visiting Saudi Arabia, was widely seen as a sign that the Kuwaitis were hedging their bets.

Last month, the regional Gulf Cooperation Council, which had been the core of an anti-Tehran group, invited Iran’s president to a gathering for the first time, and a leader of the council afterward urged the West to avoid military confrontation with Iran.

Some allies acknowledge they are delaying deals with the United States until Bush leaves office.

Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, said this month that his country didn’t want to sign a missile defense agreement with the U.S. until the next president arrives, for fear that the successor might undo the controversial project designed to counter the perceived threat from Iran.

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Some issues once considered to be foreign policy victories now are in jeopardy.

Administration officials hailed their agreement with India to help advance its civilian nuclear power program as one of their top foreign policy achievements. The deal would allow American companies to sell technology to India, which in exchange would open up its civilian reactors to international inspectors.

Now, however, the agreement is stalled by leftist opponents in the Indian Parliament, who believe India should not abandon the goal of strategic independence from the United States.

Likewise, in Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s proposal to add 3,200 Marines to its force of about 27,000 is an acknowledgment of an increasing threat in the Afghanistan conflict. America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies would prefer to reduce their troop commitment there, and some allied diplomats have talked about ways to scale back Western ambitions for the overall mission.

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In Pakistan, U.S. goals have been limited: a stable, somewhat democratic government that would fight against Islamic militants. But that strategy has suffered a series of blows in civil upheavals and the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Now the U.S. strategy is to push for fair elections in February, hoping they will give President Pervez Musharraf greater legitimacy and Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party a stabilizing secondary role in the government. But it is unclear whether the opposition party, which blames Musharraf for her death, can cooperate with the former general’s bloc at all.

In Iraq, the White House has been greatly encouraged by security improvements. And this month, U.S. officials hailed the passage of Iraqi legislation intended to promote reconciliation among Sunnis and Shiites by allowing lower level members of Saddam Hussein’s former party to hold government posts.

Yet questions remain over how effective the law will be. Meanwhile, U.S. officials continue to press for more of the so-called reconciliation benchmarks. As they do, however, they have redefined their objectives; once urgent requirements now are voluntary goals.

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“I no longer think of them so much as benchmarks,” Rice said in a late December news conference, but rather as “what they need to do over the next year.”

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paul.richter@latimes.com


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