- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

President Obama’s Inauguration Day promise to open his hand to hostile world leaders if they would “unclench their fist” has been met with belligerence from North Korea’s Kim Jong-il and defiance from Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, testing the efficacy of the president’s emphasis on diplomacy.

The president also has had to endure slights from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Castro brothers, but outreach to those Latin American countries does appear to be yielding some early results.

Ideological opponents of the Obama administration see North Korea’s escalating nuclear threat and Iran’s vow to keep its nuclear program as vindications of their warnings that the new president would be a feckless and ineffective leader.

John R. Bolton, who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, said Mr. Obama’s inaugural remarks were the words of “a naive and inexperienced leader” and that Mr. Obama “did it again” after North Korea’s test of a nuclear bomb Monday.

“He said North Korea will never gain international acceptance by pursuing nuclear weapons. That is the paradigm of an American politician who thinks that acceptance is the highest earthly objective,” Mr. Bolton said. “The North Koreans couldn’t care less about acceptance. They care about having nuclear weapons.”

But others say that U.S. engagement with Iran, at least, is still possible, and that the reasons for each regime’s recent behavior are far more nuanced than sound bites and cable news headlines would suggest.

“The administration has the right policy writ large,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Analysts generally think that North Korea is the most imminent problem for the U.S. and the world, given that Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons.

The potential for a military clash with North Korea has to be taken “a little more seriously than a couple days ago,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

But William Perry, a former defense secretary and special envoy to North Korea for the Clinton administration, said North Korea is continuing a long-standing pattern of behavior that has little to do with the change in U.S. administrations.

“What we are seeing is nothing new. It’s more of the same,” Mr. Perry told The Washington Times.

The threat of a nuclear Iran also alarms many around the world, but some think prospects remain for successful engagement with Tehran.

Many interpret Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rejection this week of any effort to slow or stop his country’s nuclear programs as campaign bluster. He is facing a challenge from some serious contenders in the June 12 national election.

Mr. Obama has said he will pursue talks with Tehran after the election results are determined, thinking that whoever wins will have more room to maneuver after the election.

But Mr. Pollack said the Iranian leader who “really matters” is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the cleric who was Iran’s president from 1981 to 1989 before being becoming the country’s most powerful political figure.

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