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Foreign horizons shrinking

In Bush's final year, administration officials are scaling back goals, more intent on shoring up than on expanding.

January 21, 2008|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is beginning its last year in office by quietly scaling back its foreign policy ambitions as it struggles with new obstacles and rapidly dwindling influence.

Only a few months ago, senior officials predicted that before their exit, they could deliver the Middle East peace deal that had eluded so many predecessors. But this month, as President Bush toured Israel and the West Bank, officials made it clear that the deal he's now talking about is not a long-awaited final agreement, but a preliminary pact to set the terms for talks.

In addition, the administration's efforts to get North Korea and Iran to end their nuclear programs have suffered deflating setbacks in recent weeks. And although the administration's greatest foreign policy undertaking, Iraq, has seen encouraging security improvements, the goal of Iraqi political reconciliation remains distant.

The upshot is that the Bush administration is going to be spending the next year managing crises and tidying up messes until the next president takes over, rather than reaching legacy milestones, as officials recently had hoped.

When speaking in public these days about the administration's record, officials talk little about diplomatic breakthroughs, and more about laying sound foundations for those who will come after them. That shift reflects how little time Bush has left and how much work remains.

"It's becoming clear that they're not going to be able to achieve that much in the time that remains, and they're simply having to adjust their ambitions," said Gary Samore, a nonproliferation expert who served in a number of previous administrations and is now at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Bush's foreign policy team had high hopes in 2007 that in the final stretch of a bruising two terms, it could eke out achievements to help offset the damage to the president's record, much of it resulting from the calamities in Iraq. But in at least some instances, the efforts came after years of inaction, hobbling chances of success.

Reviving Mideast peace talks recently has become a top priority. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region eight times last year and held out hope of a final peace deal by the end of this year.

In another push, the foreign policy team that largely replaced a more hawkish squad braved scorn from the political right by seeking a diplomatic opening with North Korea.

And its members believed they could complete a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India that would begin a major new strategic partnership with the ascendant Asian giant, and would be hailed in the United States as a towering diplomatic achievement.

Instead, as 2007 drew to a close, disappointments continued.

As recently as November, Rice stood next to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah and affirmed statements hours earlier by the Palestinian and Israeli leaders that a final peace deal could be reached by the end of 2008. Negotiations, she declared, "could achieve their goals within the time remaining within the Bush administration."

But in December and January, as preliminary talks between Israelis and Palestinians to set an agenda for negotiations got off to a rancorous start, U.S. officials began making it clear that their aim was now less ambitious. On Jan. 6, Bush told an Israeli interviewer that he was seeking a deal on "what a Palestinian state would look like."

And in December, Rice had said that the goal in the Middle East is "a foundation" that can be passed "from one administration to another."

U.S. officials hoped for more than that in North Korea. They thought last year that by offering concessions to spur talks, they were on the verge of a deal with Kim Jong Il to dismantle nuclear facilities and to eliminate fissile material in return for aid and normalized relations.

The warming seemed to have taken place with last month's announcement that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra would perform in the North's capital, Pyongyang.

But the overture, which helped advance the long-stalled talks that also involve South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, has since stumbled with the North's apparent unwillingness to fully disclose all aspects of its nuclear program. Administration officials consider this declaration essential; unless the United States knows what Pyongyang's program included, it is impossible to judge North Korea's compliance and move forward, they said. Pyongyang, however, says it has fulfilled its commitment.

Former State Department counselor Philip D. Zelikow described the American offers as a "diplomatic test" intended to determine whether the State Department could reverse North Korea's weapons program.

Now, Zelikow said, it is "not clear if the diplomatic test will succeed."

If it fails, he said, the United States will have to change tack and work with a new, more conservative South Korean government to develop a "comprehensive and patient policy."

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