A fading star Bush set to go with a whimper

Jim Lobe

With only three months left in office, US President George W Bush appears increasingly determined to calm the international waters he so vigorously churned up, especially during his first term. In just the last several days, he has effectively rehabilitated a charter member of the “Axis of Evil” — North Korea — by agreeing to take it off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for Pyongyang’s agreement to resume its dismantling of a key nuclear facility and cooperate with US and international inspectors.

As for the other surviving member of the Axis, Iran, leaks from the State Department and elsewhere over the last several days suggest that Bush will announce Washington’s intention to open a US Interest Section in Tehran shortly after the Nov. 4 presidential elections here, effectively re-establishing diplomatic relations that were broken off 29 years ago.

“It is...the final crash and burn of a once-inspiring global effort to confront and reverse nuclear proliferation, thereby protecting America and its friends,” wrote former UN Ambassador John Bolton in Monday’s Wall Street Journal about the North Korea deal. “Having bent the knee to North Korea, Secretary (of State Condoleezza) Rice appears primed to do the same with Iran, despite that regime’s egregious and extensive involvement in terrorism and the acceleration of its nuclear programme,” continued Bolton, who is often thought to express the off-the-record views of Vice President Dick Cheney.

He predicted that Washington will actually open its Interest Section “within days” after the election despite the fact that Tehran has not yet given its approval. “Hard as it is to believe, there may be worse yet to come,” Bolton concluded. Worse for the hawks, the two moves also tend to undercut the foundering election campaign of Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, in precisely those very few remaining areas — national security and the “war on terror” — in which, according to public opinion polls, he is generally perceived as stronger and more experienced than his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama.

McCain, who has joked about bombing Iran on the campaign trail, until recently opposed any direct diplomatic engagement with Tehran unless it complied with UN Security Council demands that it freeze its uranium-enrichment programme. And he reacted to the latest agreement with Pyongyang by effectively withholding his support. “I expect the administration to explain exactly how this new verification agreement advances American interests and those of its allies,” he said after the State Department announced it would take Pyongyang off the terrorism list. Obama called the deal a “modest step forward”.

Indeed, on a range of key foreign policy issues — including the priority to be given to Israel-Palestinian peace talks, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia after its intervention in Georgia, and even Taiwan, to which McCain supports several big-ticket arms systems currently opposed by both the administration and Obama — Bush now appears closer to the Democratic candidate than to his-fellow Republican.

Bush’s latest moves reflect the culmination of a “realist restoration”. That restoration has been led by Rice and senior career diplomats in her Department, the intelligence community, and, since late 2006, by Pentagon chief Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff whose conviction that the US armed forces are badly overstretched and cannot afford to fight yet another war, be it on the Korean peninsula, the Middle East, or, for that matter, in the Caucasus, has had an impact in the Oval Office.

The current financial crisis has no doubt enhanced the White House’s appreciation for the degree to which the US is dependent on foreign powers — not all of them necessarily friendly — and their cooperation, thus strengthening the realists’ position as the administration

plays out its term. Realists — including members of the 2006 Iraq Study Group headed by former secretary of state James Baker — have long urged Bush to drop preconditions for direct negotiations with Tehran. In June, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Michael Mullen called for a “broad dialogue” with Iran.

Less than one month later, Bush sent a senior State Department official to participate for the first time in talks between the other permanent UN Security Council members, Germany, and Iran, amid reports that Iran had successfully tested advanced centrifuges that would permit it to accelerate its uranium enrichment programme. He also tentatively agreed to Rice’s idea of opening an Interest Section at that time, but the announcement was reportedly put off when Cheney and others opposed to the move argued that it could harm McCain’s election chances. The well-connected Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported Sunday, however, that the announcement will be made after the election in mid-November, a report echoed by Bolton the following day.