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December 13, 2005

Diplomacy's Back
Posted by Derek Chollet

We spend a lot of space here at DA beating up the current Administration on this or that – because, well, they deserve it, and because that’s what being in the loyal opposition is all about.

But I think what distinguishes constructive criticism from mere carping is giving the Bush team credit when they do something right (especially when it’s along the lines of what we recommended!)

For example, Secretary of State Rice’s trip to Europe last week was rightfully consumed by the controversy over CIA “black sites” and questions about what to do next in Iraq.

But these bitter debates obscure a surprising -- and for some, hard to swallow -- 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 has belatedly discovered what it once derided -- the art of diplomacy (a version of what follows appeared in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun).

For instance, the Administration vowed it would never get sucked into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  Yet last month, Secretary 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 new respect from all sides for their indispensable role in forging an agreement.

American diplomacy is also back in the Balkans, a part of the world that 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 – and, even more surprisingly, Secretary Rice went out of her way to honor personally the Clinton Administration officials who forged Dayton, holding their effort up as a model of successful American statecraft.            

This trend is 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 talk to the North Koreans face to face.  Now 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 the North Koreans will ever 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 U.S. in a stronger position to get tougher.   

A similar and perhaps more remarkable shift can be seen in the approach toward Iran.  The Bush team rightly still considers a nuclear Iran as 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, it is now playing an active behind-the-scenes role to work with Great Britain, France and Germany to find a solution – the result being creative proposals and greater international consensus to pressure Tehran, including through institutions like the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Many European leaders are pleasantly shocked at the Administration’s newfound enthusiasm for engagement and multilateralism, and are hoping it lasts. 

What explains such dramatic turns 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 those proposed last year by Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards?

Perhaps it reflects the diminishing role of Vice President Cheney, who drove the Administration’s disdain for diplomacy during the first term. Maybe it shows 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 never could.  Or it might simply be that President 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 U.S. 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 American 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 America does (in fact, given the fact of geography, one could argue that others have a greater stake), but the Administration seems to be doing little to leverage these interests.

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


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