Sunday, March 18, 2007

In the absence of the sort of bipartisan foreign-policy approach that characterized the relationship between President Eisenhower and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson during the 1950s, one of the Bush administration’s most important assets is the ineptitude of the current crop of congressional Democrats, who enable the White House to win small skirmishes by default. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid failed again last week to win passage of a proposal calling for early troop withdrawals from Iraq. In the House, the Democratic leadership has stumbled time and again in trying to craft legislation that would cripple the war effort in Iraq. Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received a smattering of boos when she bad-mouthed the war effort during a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the Democratic leadership, responding to concerns from pro-Israel lawmakers, was forced to strip from a military appopriations measure a provision meant to weaken President Bush’s ability to respond to threats from Iran.

But there is still plenty of reason to be concerned about the direction in which the administration has been going of late. “Has the Bush administration gone soft on its foes?” one New York Times “news analysis” story asked earlier this month. The story went on to report that as recently as Jan. 12, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice emphasized that the administration would refrain from direct talks with Iran and Syria so long as these regimes continue to foment terrorism and — in spite of repeated diplomatic overtures the Bush administration has already made — continue to act in other ways to subvert U.S. policy interests. But Miss Rice (with the blessing of Iraq Study Group co-chairman Lee Hamilton) was able to prevail over skeptics like Vice President Cheney and get Mr. Bush to agree to talks.

Depending on who is providing the Bush administration’s spin, the administration is: 1) not changing its policy, according to White House spokesman Tony Snow; or 2) changing its policy because it is now operating from a position of strength that it previously lacked, as one official told the Times; or 3) changing its policy because of the “limited success” of the previously backward hardline approach, as a different official told the Times. It probably won’t be long before someone tries to argue that all three explanations are simultaneously true.

So, nine days ago, U.S. diplomats sat down in Baghdad with representatives of the Iranian and Syrian regimes. By the end of the day, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq (and U.N. Ambassador-designate) Zalmay Khalilzad, sounded moderately optimistic. “They want the government to succeed; they want national reconciliation; they want a close to violence and terror,” he said of the Iranians, while cautioning that “we will have to wait and see what happens on the ground.” To put it mildly, there is plenty of reason for pessimism on this point. During the past 72 hours alone, for example, Iranian regime elements have threatened the United States with unspecified consequences if military action is taken against Tehran’s illicit nuclear weapons program and have hinted that they might kidnap Americans in response to reports that a senior Revolutionary Guard operative had defected to the West.

Beyond Iran and Syria, administration policies in other areas seem adrift or headed in the wrong direction, particularly at State. Respected figures like John Bolton and Elliott Abrams have raised serious questions about the North Korean nuclear deal brokered by the State Department last month. The ongoing effort to pocket Israeli concessions for a failed leader like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has become almost farcical. And Miss Rice, testifying Feb. 27 before the Senate Appropriations Committee, made a very regrettable gaffe, referring to “the border between Iraq and Kurdistan” — suggesting (inaccurately) that the United States is not committed to Iraq’s territorial integrity and needlessly creating tensions with Turkey.

Neither the president nor the nation are well-served by the current wartime drift in U.S. foreign policy.

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