Global Policy Forum

Dissent Grows Over US Silent Treatment for 'Axis of Evil'


By Helene Cooper

New York Times
October 27, 2006

Ever since President George W. Bush proclaimed there to be an "axis of evil" in 2002, pundits, diplomats and politicians have urged him to talk to its members. But the cries for dialogue have grown louder in recent weeks with North Korea's nuclear test, Iran's defiance of a UN order to stop enriching uranium and the mounting violence in Iraq.

James Baker, the Republican former secretary of state, said this month that he believed "in talking to your enemies." After North Korea tested its nuclear device earlier this month, the former president Jimmy Carter said "the stupidest thing that a government can do that has a real problem with someone is to refuse to talk to them." Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democratic rising star, said last weekend that even at the peak of the Cold War, "when there were nuclear missiles pointing at every major U.S. city, there was a direct line between the White House and the Kremlin."

The question arises: Are these arguments cutting any ice with the administration?

Officially, the administration is sticking to form. Bush said as much during a news conference on Wednesday, when he was asked, again, whether he would be willing to work with Iran and Syria if it was determined that they could help bring stability to Iraq, their neighbor.

His reply did not veer from the script, which basically withholds U.S. dialogue from "axis of evil" members until they change their ways. "Iran and Syria understand full well that the world expects them to help Iraq," Bush said. He said that if the Iranians stopped enriching uranium, U.S. diplomats would talk to them. He also had a lengthy to-do list for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to get into America's good graces: "Do not undermine the Siniora government in Lebanon; help Israel get back the prisoner that was captured by Hamas; don't allow Hamas and Hezbollah to plot attacks against democracies in the Middle East; help inside of Iraq."

But within the administration, things are a little more nuanced, Bush officials said. One administration official distilled the internal deliberations this way: "On Syria, there's a very healthy debate about whether we should talk to them; on Iran, there is no debate internally."

The American officials who agreed to speak about the internal discussions are all involved in that debate, with some opposed to any discussions with Iran, Syria and North Korea, and others saying that such talks should be considered. Among those inside the administration who are urging more engagement with Damascus, most come from the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, including Assistant Secretary C. David Welch, the officials said.

But, surprisingly, in recent months, the usually hawkish deputy national security adviser, J.D. Crouch, has been pushing for the administration to talk directly to Syria, officials say. The administration officials would not speak on the record, because they did not want to be named when discussing internal deliberations. The "axis of evil," as originally defined by Bush, was comprised of Iraq, North Korea and Iran. But after the U.S.- led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq was replaced by Syria, in light of the 2005 assassination in Lebanon of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister.

American officials and some at the United Nations have said that Syria had a hand in the Hariri assassination. The Bush administration and Israel have also accused Syria of supporting Hezbollah in its cross-border raid into Israel this summer, an attack that sparked a monthlong war. Officially, the United States has diplomatic relations with Damascus, where there is a U.S. embassy. But it is manned by a chargé d'affaires and not an ambassador; Bush recalled the ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, after the Hariri assassination.

There is less debate within the administration when it comes to talking to Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is believed to have pushed the White House as far toward dialogue with Iran as it was willing to go when she prodded Bush in May to offer to join European talks with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

As for North Korea, U.S. officials continue to espouse the view that the United States, by insisting on talking to North Korea only within the confines of a regional group, can better share the burden of power. Rice offered reporters the diplomatic version of that argument last week. "What we've been unwilling to do is to negotiate bilaterally, with the North Koreans, another agreement that they are going to be free to disregard because it will only be with the United States and not with states that frankly have more leverage than the United States, like China and South Korea," she said. A senior administration official offered a slightly less diplomatic version, saying, "Sometimes not talking to our enemies will force our allies to step up to the plate."

But the administration will continue to take hits over not talking to its enemies until it can demonstrably show that this strategy has had results, diplomats said. Said one European diplomat in Washington: "They've isolated Cuba for 40 years and you see how well that's worked."

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