Bush Engages Foreign Foes


By: Wall Street Journal

As Policy Shift Accelerates Letter to North Korea Is the Latest Example
By JAY SOLOMON

WASHINGTON — The White House said that President Bush sent a letter directly to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il seeking cooperation in implementing a pact to dismantle its nuclear arms in exchange for full normalized relations.

The move is the latest example of the White House accelerating its reversal on numerous foreign-policy fronts.

Earlier in his presidency, Mr. Bush designated Pyongyang a member of an “axis of evil” and expressed loathing for the communist state’s dictator. In recent months, however, contacts have picked up amid an accord on dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

On other fronts — particularly Iran, Syria and Lebanon — the Bush administration is also shifting tactics in ways that could affect American interests long-term, say U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts. President Bush is generally receiving praise for engaging Pyongyang and Damascus, but he is also risking alienating the Republican Party’s conservative wing, which believes the U-turns will undermine U.S. standing around the world.

“Our foreign policy is in free-fall at the moment,” said John Bolton, Mr. Bush’s former ambassador to the United Nations and an ally of Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Bolton argues that engaging dictators will only “diminish our prestige and influence.”

The release this week of a U.S. intelligence report playing down the threat posed by Iran’s atomic energy program is already undercutting President Bush’s high-profile campaign to pressure Tehran into suspending its nuclear activities. Mr. Bush used financial sanctions and the threat of force, and a growing number of foreign diplomats now say it will be increasingly difficult for Washington to push a new round of economic sanctions through the United Nations.

The National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran froze its nuclear-weapons program in 2003, though it continues to aggressively enrich uranium to produce nuclear fuel.

Both conservative and liberal pundits see the report as so weakening the White House that the U.S. may have no option but to more aggressively seek direct talks with Iran. Even some U.S. diplomats are seizing on the hope that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could use the intelligence report to open up talks with the West.

“If they want to pursue our offers to negotiate, they now have the perfect face-saver,” said a U.S. official.

In addition to the report on Iran, Washington’s sudden opening to Syria and President Bashar Assad has also stunned many diplomats and foreign-policy analysts. For most of the past six years, the White House viewed Damascus as among its most intractable foes in the Middle East, charging it with supporting militant groups fighting in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories. Many U.S. officials also believe Damascus was directly involved in the 2005 murder of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a charge Syria denies.

In recent weeks, though, the U.S. has displayed a growing willingness to talk with Syrian leaders. Damascus’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad addressed the Annapolis peace summit last month, just weeks after it was uncertain that the State Department would even invite the Syrians. And U.S. officials say they are considering backing a Russian initiative to promote direct peace talks between the Syrians and the Israelis.

Pentagon and State Department officials say their optimism toward Syria has been driven by a lessening of the number of foreign fighters being allowed to cross into Iraq from Syria. They also say they hope Mr. Assad can be constructive in helping Lebanon elect a new president after a yearlong political crisis in Beirut.

Still, there are fears that any U.S. engagement with Syria could ultimately cost Lebanon’s pro-Western government. In recent days, the Bush administration has indicated it would accept a Lebanese general as president who has longstanding ties to Mr. Assad’s regime. Many Lebanese fear this could restore Syrian influence inside their country, just two years after President Assad withdrew nearly 30,000 Syrian troops.

The most pronounced reversal of policy between Mr. Bush’s first and second terms involves North Korea. After eschewing any direct talks, the State Department is now regularly sending envoys to Pyongyang and is even promoting a performance by the New York Philharmonic there early next year. Mr. Bush was also encouraged by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to directly contact Mr. Kim through the letter.

In his letter to Mr. Kim, President Bush wrote: “I want to emphasize that the declaration must be complete and accurate if we are to continue our progress,” according to an excerpt of the Dec. 1 letter reviewed by the Associated Press.

The payoff has been a nuclear accord among the U.S., North Korea and four other parties that calls for dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program by next year. There’s also hope that Washington could sign a peace agreement with North Korea, China and South Korea, formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War.

Write to Jay Solomon at jay.solomon@wsj.com

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