The Rush for a Legacy

By Jackson Diehl (THE WASHINGTON POST, 06/08/07):

In a speech to a meeting of democratic freedom fighters in Prague on June 5, President Bush announced a concrete mission for his State Department. “I have asked Secretary Rice,” he said, “to send a directive to every U.S. ambassador in an unfree nation: Seek out and meet with activists for democracy. Seek out those who demand human rights.”

Nearly two months later, the cable had not been sent. (The State Department told me that it was dispatched late Friday — the day after I called the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor to inquire about it.) In contrast, Condoleezza Rice spent last week meeting with the Arab autocrats of the Middle East in pursuit of an entirely different agenda: “security and stability” for their unfree nations and support for a new Middle East peace process.

With less than 18 months remaining in her tenure and that of President Bush, Rice has turned her famously disciplined focus toward delivering legacy achievements. But her aims are utterly different from those with which Bush began his second term — such as the “freedom agenda” he restated in Prague. Democracy promotion in the Middle East is out, replaced by a belated but intense effort to broker a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Even more strikingly, the “regime change” strategy that once marked Bush administration policy toward North Korea has been dropped in favor of an all-out effort to negotiate a rapprochement with dictator Kim Jong Il.

Within months, if the bold new strategies pay off, Rice could oversee both a “declaration of principles” between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the formation of a Palestinian state, and a full disclosure by North Korea of the nuclear bombs and related materials it has been accumulating and hiding for the past two decades.

To Rice and to aides who are working on the deals, those breakthroughs seem tantalizingly close. Last week Abbas agreed to work on the “declaration of principles,” first proposed by Olmert, while Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal hinted at Saudi participation in a U.S.-sponsored conference planned for the fall. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who is leading the negotiations with North Korea, believes Pyongyang’s unprecedented declaration of its nuclear assets — including uranium enrichment facilities and equipment it has resolutely denied possessing for the past five years — could be obtained within weeks. A deal to dismantle bombs and other nuclear facilities could be done by the end of the year.

If all this happens, Rice will look brilliant, and the legacy of an administration weighted by Iraq and Afghanistan will get a substantial boost. No wonder, perhaps, that the secretary hasn’t bothered with directives about dissidents. But no wonder, too, that the rush for deliverables is making veterans of U.S. foreign policy — including one or two inside the Bush administration — more than a little nervous.

The Rice offensive bears more than a passing resemblance to a record the Bush team once ridiculed — the mad dash for Israeli-Palestinian peace and North Korean disarmament by the Clinton administration in its final months. In the summer of 2000 President Bill Clinton astonished many in and outside of the Middle East by abruptly convening a summit at Camp David in an attempt to leap to a two-state settlement. Not long afterward, his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, flew to Pyongyang for an unprecedented meeting with Kim — drawn by the prospect that North Korea would give up its program of long-range missiles.

Then as now, there were warnings from regional experts that the Palestinians were nowhere near ready for a final settlement and that deteriorating conditions in the West Bank and Gaza made the attempt particularly risky. More than a few Republicans claimed that Albright was being taken in by Kim, who, they said, would pocket the propaganda value of her visit but never deliver his missiles.

The naysayers turned out to be right. Yasser Arafat wasn’t ready to conclude a deal, even on the generous terms that Israel then offered (and Olmert now rejects). And Kim was fooling: His negotiators never offered the Clinton administration a serious proposal on missiles. When time ran out, the Bush administration inherited a war between Israelis and Palestinians and an impasse with North Korea.

Is an administration hungry for redemption once again chasing diplomatic mirages? Hill seems convinced that the North Koreans are serious this time, though he worries that Kim will demand more in exchange for his arsenal than the United States will be prepared to give. Abbas and his prime minister, unlike Arafat, have said publicly they are ready to make a two-state deal — but they don’t speak for Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and has the ability to trigger another war there or in the West Bank.

Rice may get her legacy — let’s hope so. But history is a reminder that lame-duck diplomacy can be dangerous as well as bold.