Bush team finally discovers diplomacy

December 12, 2005|By DEREK CHOLLET

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to Europe last week was consumed by the controversy over CIA "black sites" and questions about what to do next in Iraq. But these bitter debates obscure a surprising fact: The U.S. approach toward many of the world's toughest challenges has undergone a dramatic, if quiet, transformation. After five years in office, the Bush team belatedly has discovered what it once derided - the art of diplomacy.

Examples abound.

For one, the administration was reluctant to get sucked into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Yet last month, Ms. Rice earned plaudits for something few believed she would ever do - undertake an exhaustive effort (including an all-night bargaining session) to broker a deal to open a key border crossing in Gaza. Now, for the first time in their history, the Palestinians have control over who comes and goes from their territory. And the Americans have gained new respect from all sides for their indispensable role in forging an agreement.

U.S. diplomacy also is back in the Balkans, an area the Bush team largely neglected during its first term. Yet it has invigorated efforts to resolve Kosovo's final status. In Bosnia, the administration used the 10th anniversary of the Dayton agreement to negotiate essential changes to that country's constitution. Even more surprising, Ms. Rice went out of her way to honor the Clinton administration officials who forged the Dayton accords, holding up their effort as a model of successful U.S. statecraft.

This trend appears elsewhere, such as the about-face over how to handle the challenge of North Korea's fledgling nuclear program. For nearly two years, the administration's policy was to do next to nothing, refusing even to speak with the North Koreans face to face.

Now President Bush's diplomats are empowered to deal directly with them and have constructed an offer to challenge Pyongyang to end its nuclear ambitions. It's still unknown whether North Korea will accept this offer - the last round of talks ended inconclusively - but the Bush team's engagement has garnered support from key allies and puts the United States in a stronger position to get tougher.

A similar and perhaps more remarkable shift involves the approach toward Iran. The administration rightly still considers a nuclear Iran to be unacceptable, but it has moved away from belittling the European-led efforts to try to find a diplomatic solution.

While it once kept a careful distance, Washington is now playing an active behind-the-scenes role to work with Britain, France and Germany to find a solution. The result has been creative proposals and greater international consensus to pressure Tehran, including through institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency. Many European leaders are pleasantly shocked at the administration's newfound enthusiasm for engagement and multilateralism, and hope it lasts.

What explains such dramatic turnarounds on so many different fronts? How can it be that an administration once so pumped up with pride and power is now working with others and even - although it would never admit it - embracing diplomacy in ways that look a lot like what was proposed in the presidential race last year by the Democrats?

Perhaps it reflects the diminishing role of Vice President Dick Cheney, who drove the administration's disdain for diplomacy during the first term. Maybe it shows Ms. Rice's influence. She went to the State Department pledging that "the time for diplomacy is now," and she has the bureaucratic clout to deliver in ways that her predecessor, Colin L. Powell, never could. Or it might simply be that Mr. Bush has finally recognized that in many areas, his approach wasn't working and only left America isolated.

Yet there is one glaring exception to the administration's new diplomatic energy, which also happens to be its biggest test: Iraq. When compared with its actions elsewhere, the Bush team's diplomatic approach toward Iraq has shown a disappointing lack of creativity and engagement.

Greater international consensus will be critical as the United States reduces its military presence in Iraq, as now appears inevitable. Success there means more than better training of the Iraqi security forces and the gradual redeployment of U.S. troops. It requires active political support from regional players and America's key allies, especially after a new Iraqi government takes office next year.

The rest of the world has as great an interest in Iraq's stability and success as does the United States, but the administration seems to be doing little to leverage these interests.

At a moment when the Bush administration finally has discovered the importance of skilled statecraft to try to solve so many other problems, it cannot overlook the place where diplomacy is needed most.

Derek Chollet, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the author of "The Road to the Dayton Accords: A Study of American Statecraft." His e-mail is dhchollet@csis.org.

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