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.
“I don’t think the supreme leader has made up his mind” about engaging with the Obama administration, Mr. Pollack said, though he speculated that Ayatollah Khamenei “has probably made a strategic decision to engage us.”
Mr. Pollack said Mr. Obama’s main mistakes with Iran have been to set a deadline for the end of this year to see progress in talks.
“Threatening them really doesn’t help. Everyone knows that if the Iranians aren’t forthcoming and don’t grip the United States’ outstretched hand, the U.S. is going to pursue other options. You don’t need to say it,” he said.
“It’s like the matador’s cape. You keep the sword hidden until you need to use it.”
Brent Scowcroft, who was a national security adviser to Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush, said diplomacy could work with Iran, “but it will take very close cooperation” among the group of nations in talks with Tehran known as the “P-5 plus one” - the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) and Germany.
Mr. Scowcroft emphasized the importance of the Washington-Moscow relationship, which he said frayed under the Bush administration. The Obama administration’s implicit offer to trade missile defenses in Eastern Europe for Russian cooperation on Iran was a good idea, Mr. Scowcroft said.
He added that success with North Korea was key to success with Iran.
“We’d be foolish if we didn’t think the Iranians are looking to see what happens to North Korea. … If we turn the other cheek again on North Korea, it will seriously damage the chances with Iran.”
North Korea on Wednesday threatened military action against U.S. and South Korean ships, after the South’s decision to join a U.S.-led anti-proliferation alliance that intercepts vessels suspected of aiding the North’s nuclear program or of distributing nuclear materials to other countries.
Pyongyang has rejected the idea of direct talks floated by U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth, in what one regional analyst called “a rude welcome” for the Obama administration.
“Negotiating with a regime like that is highly irresponsible,” said Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence official focused on the Near East and South Asia.
“That regime is sick, with erratic, ideologically twisted leadership that almost makes Iran look moderate,” he said.
But Mr. Perry said tough diplomacy backed by sanctions is still an option, if the U.S. can get China - North Korea’s major supplier of food and fuel - on board. He said there was no good military option against North Korea now that it has reprocessed enough plutonium for six to eight bombs and stored the nuclear fuel at an unknown location.
Even Mr. Bolton doubts the military option is in the cards with North Korea, but he said the U.S. should support a military strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities, even if this would not fully eliminate Tehran’s program.
“A targeted military action by Israel could break [Iran’s] control over the nuclear fuel cycle and put the Iranians back three to five years, and that would put time on our side. Then I think you have the time to support and engage dissidents in Iran to get regime change,” Mr. Bolton said.
Mr. White and others, however, say an Israeli strike would simply destabilize the region and would make it “certain that the Iranians would embark on a crash program” for the bomb after that.
As for Mr. Obama’s outreach to Latin American countries traditionally at odds with the U.S., results have been mixed.
The president had a telegenic run-in with Mr. Chavez at a regional summit in Trinidad and Tobago in April, in which the populist leftist leader presented Mr. Obama with a book savaging U.S. policy in the hemisphere. Mr. Obama has largely refrained from replying to Mr. Chavez’s trademark barbs directed at Washington.
But the U.S. and Venezuela are taking steps to normalize relations, including proposed re-establishment of ambassadorial relations.
In Cuba, Mr. Obama’s gestures to loosen the U.S. trade embargo and seek “engagement” with the regime brought an initial positive reaction from Cuban President Raul Castro. The Cuban leader said Havana was open to wide-ranging talks with the United States, even on such issues as human rights.
But just days later, Mr. Castro’s elder brother and longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro released a statement saying Mr. Obama had “without a doubt misinterpreted” Raul Castro’s remarks.
• Barbara Slavin and David R. Sands contributed to this report.