U.S. Suddenly Holding Its Enemies Closer

This week, a top U.S. diplomat will talk with his North Korean counterpart about normalizing ties. Last week, the United States agreed to take part in a meeting later this month in Iraq that will include Iran and Syria. Why is the U.S. suddenly willing to talk to countries that it has been keeping at arms length?

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen. Tomorrow and Tuesday, a top U.S. diplomat will meet with his North Korean counterpart in New York to start to talk about normalizing ties. Last week, the U.S. announced that it will join a meeting of Iraq and its neighbors, Iran and Syria.

Although the Bush administration has shunned these regimes in recent years, it insists it isn't going soft. NPR's Michele Kelemen explains.

MICHELE KELEMEN: It was just in January when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was explaining to senators why she didn't see the point in talking to the Iranians and the Syrians about Iraq. She would talk to the Iranians once they suspended controversial nuclear activities, and as for Syria, she didn't want to have to give them anything in return.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Secretary of State): We have talked to the Syrians. We've generally gotten nowhere, and now we would be going in a way that I fear looks like a supplicant.

KELEMEN: Just days later on a trip in the Middle East, she explained to reporters that diplomacy only works when the context is right and the U.S. has some leverage. So why is the administration ready to talk to the Iranians and Syrians now?

Daniel Serwer of the U.S. Institute of Peace says he wasn't surprised to the see the administration finally come around to this idea of a regional conference on Iraq. He always felt that the U.S. was talking tough on Iran and moving aircraft carriers into the Gulf in order to get into a position where it feels comfortable to talk.

Mr. DANIEL SERWER (U.S. Institute of Peace): It's taking a new approach, and I hope it's doing it sincerely and with a real commitment to try to defend American interests. Nobody should imagine that we haven't talked with the Saudis about not funneling money to Sunni insurgents. Why wouldn't we also be talking to the Iranians about not funneling arms to Shia militias? It doesn't make sense not to be talking.

KELEMEN: The administration has long been divided on this basic issue of whether to engage in diplomacy with countries it considers evil or whether to maintain a hard line against them, but just as analysts are talking about how flexible and pragmatic the Bush administration seems to have become, Secretary Rice is bringing in a neoconservative, Eliot Cohen, as her counselor. Another conservative, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, dismisses all this talk of a new pragmatic mood.

Mr. JOHN BOLTON (Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations): I consider myself both a pragmatist and a hard-liner, and you can be a pragmatist and a weenie, too. I don't necessarily agree that there's been a sea change in the administration's foreign policy. I certain hope there hasn't been.

KELEMEN: Now, back at the American Enterprise Institute, Bolton has been highly critical of the latest nuclear deal with North Korea, negotiated right after he left government and soon after North Korea exploded a nuclear device. He says he doesn't believe North Korea will disarm, and he speaks with disdain about those in the, quote, "permanent bureaucracy" who have been wanting to reach this sort of deal for a long time.

Mr. BOLTON: We had the North Koreans in a corner through the Security Council sanctions and through the financial law-enforcement activities at the Treasury Department, and it looks like certainly the Treasury Department is going to be made to back off, and North Korea will now reap substantial economic benefits. So I think this was a case of giving up leverage that we already had over North Korea, and it's one of my difficulties with that deal.

KELEMEN: By most accounts, it was President Bush himself who gave Secretary Rice and her negotiator the leeway they needed to reach the deal in the so-called six-party talks on North Korea. Robert Gallucci, dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, says President Bush needed some sort of diplomatic success.

Mr. ROBERT GALLUCCI (Georgetown University): It's the president of the United States looking at the foreign policy scene, looking at his mid-term elections, looking at four countries - North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan - and this case, oddly enough, North Korea looks like low-hanging fruit in terms of a problem that might be able to be open to solution, and so I think that's extremely important to explain why we are where we are.

KELEMEN: He also has his doubts that North Korea will really disarm, but as to Bolton's argument that the U.S. gave up leverage, Gallucci says he thinks administration officials simply came to a realization about Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Mr. GALLUCCI: I think that what's happened here is that they've recognized that a policy of wishing we had the leverage through sanctions doesn't stop a program.

KELEMEN: Gallucci is one of those in the foreign-policy establishment who favors engagement and hopes the days of posturing and refusing to talk to bad actors is over.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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