WASHINGTON—As North Korean and U.S. officials sit down Monday to begin mending fences after 55 years of hot war and cold peace, it will be a turning point for both countries—and it could be the beginning of a transformation for President Bush.
Republican presidents in the past have made policy shifts that Democrats feared to take. Dwight Eisenhower ended the Korean War, and Richard Nixon opened relations with communist China.
There's also a bipartisan tradition of two-term presidents turning to diplomacy in their final years in office.
Ronald Reagan railed against the Soviet "Evil Empire" in his first term, then cut nuclear arms deals with Mikhail Gorbachev in his second, opening the way to ending the Cold War. Bill Clinton mostly ignored foreign policy in his first term, then threw himself into Middle East peacemaking as his days in office drew to a close, although he came up short.
But one big question about Bush's opening to North Korea and steps last week that could lead to a dialogue with Iran and Syria is whether a vision of peace is the driving force or desperation over a string of diplomatic failures, last fall's elections and a failing war in Iraq.
The other big question is whether the administration is sincerely interested in negotiating normal relations with North Korea, Iran and Syria or remains interested in overthrowing them.
The talks in New York between U.S. envoy Chris Hill and North Korean Vice Minister Kim Kye Gwan will occur a week after the United States agreed to sit down at an international conference on Iraq with representatives of Iran and Syria.
Many foreign-policy observers say the decisions add up to a major turn, or at least the start of one.
"The point is, it's an important shift. But it's only a start," said Daniel Serwer of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Serwer was the executive director of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which urged Bush to launch a diplomatic initiative on Iraq that included Iran and Syria.
"You have to have sincere talks with these people," he said. "Getting results is going to be tough. Let's face it, America is much weakened by this experience" in Iraq.
Vision doesn't seem to be the prime motivator of Bush's shift on North Korea: It may have been more a shift of advisers. Confrontation with North Korea, advocated by a hard-line faction in the administration, may have helped provoke Pyongyang into developing and testing a nuclear weapon, the opposite of U.S. intent.
But now the hard-line faction, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, has been weakened by the U.S. failure in Iraq, the perjury trial of Cheney's former chief of staff and the departure of some of his allies in the administration, among them Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary and John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. This has worked to the advantage of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was facing a grim final two years in office with little to show for it.
Her own official version is that the openings to Iran, Syria and North Korea are part of a well-planned strategy.
"What you have to understand is, this didn't happen overnight. OK? These policies have been put in place over a period of years," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "Now you are seeing the administration in a position to be able to reap some of the benefits of the diplomatic groundwork that has been laid."
However, the opening to North Korea seems to have been a case study in Rice outmaneuvering Cheney. She set up the breakthrough that led to a Feb. 13 nuclear agreement with a direct phone call to the president while stopping in Berlin on her way home from a Middle East tour. Now the test of her diplomacy is whether she can continue to outmaneuver opponents within the administration.
There's also little evidence that Bush, who usually portrays himself more as a rough and tumble politician than as a visionary, undertook the opening to Iran and Syria with a long-term aim of normalizing relations.
The talks in Iraq won't be direct negotiations, and the only real development will be that U.S. officials will sit at the same table with Iranian and Syrian officials at talks hosted by the government of Iraq.
Some suspect that Rice's announcement before a Senate committee was aimed mostly at defusing rising congressional criticism of Bush's Iraq policy.
"A lot of our discussions and the votes over the last several weeks, I think, have prompted the administration to begin a diplomatic effort, which is long overdue," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.
Whether it's a sincere and far-reaching shift or a temporary "fix" for public relations reasons, the decision to be represented at the talks is a far cry from Bush's initial brush-off of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations.
The toughest critics of the president's shift are conservatives, who fear that U.S. adversaries will see the administration as severely weakened by the war in Iraq.
"Negotiating with bad guys from a position of weakness is not the right place to start," said Danielle Pletka, the vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
(McClatchy correspondent Renee Schoof contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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