As someone who voted to elect George W. Bush in both of his runs for president, I take no pleasure in saying that when it comes to foreign policy, his final year in the White House looks increasingly like Bill Clinton’s. Clinton spent his second term desperately trying to create a peacemaking “legacy” for himself: courting world leaders who had no real interest in making peace like Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Il, but failing utterly when it came to the basics, like ensuring that the United States had the intelligence capabilities to tackle the terrorist threat posed by groups like al Qaeda.
Now, President Bush appears to be falling into some of the same traps. Unless there is some brilliantly well-hidden covert effort underway to deal with the Iranian nuclear weapons program in the next nine and a half months, it appears likely that when he leaves office, he will bequeath his successor a growing Iranian weapons and ballistic missile threat. From all outward appearances, Bush, like Clinton eight years earlier, is squandering valuable time and political capital on efforts to get Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, to fight terror and to persuade a Stalinist dictatorship in Pyongyang to negotiate away its nuclear weapons programs.
On Saturday, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepared to leave for another round of Mideast diplomacy, the Bush Administration got another demonstration of the futility of trying to turn Abbas into a “peacemaker.” Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, attended a summit of Arab leaders in Damascus (a parley that moderate Arab states like Jordan and Iraq had the good judgment to skip.) Speaking in the capital of the number one Arab rejectionist state, Abbas attacked Israeli military raids against terrorist targets in Gaza. (It should be pointed out that Hamas and virtually every other Gaza-based terror group firing rockets into Israel is backed by Syria). In an Orwellian inversion of the truth, Abbas told his audience in Damascus that the Palestinians need international “protection” from Israel, never mind the fact that Abbas has been exiled from Gaza since Hamas staged a bloody June putsch against his Fatah organization, and the fact that his shaky West Bank statelet could well topple were it not for Israel’s military presence.
Earlier last week, Abbas’ Fatah organization attempted to negotiate a “truce” with Hamas at negotiations in hosted by the government of Yemen (a government that has been in the news lately for permitting a number of al Qaeda terrorists, including one fugitive whose extradition was sought by the United States, to “escape” from prison).
In an effort to lay the groundwork for President Bush’s scheduled May visit to the Middle East, Rice is putting pressure on Israel to make an array of concessions to Abbas and the Palestinians, including the removal of roadblocks in the West Bank that have made it virtually impossible for terrorists to enter Israel. On Wednesday, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that Gen. William Fraser, who heads the American team responsible for monitoring Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the “road map” for peace set up by the Bush Administration, has concluded that Abbas’ Palestinian security forces are failing to engage in counterterrorist operations necessary to eradicate Hamas terror cells in the West Bank. Instead of working to destroy Hamas, PA security forces are merely seeking to “contain” it on the West Bank to prevent it from challenging Fatah while leaving it in place to strike Israel.
But rather than acknowledge that it lacks a serious, viable Palestinian negotiating partner, the Bush administration has bizarrely decided to make brokering a peace agreement between Israel and Abbas by the end of the year one of its top priorities. And for the past year and a half, Rice has repeatedly undermined the administration’s credibility by making statements suggesting that Israeli security checkpoints set up to prevent terrorists from entering Israel and blowing themselves up are somehow analogous to the mistreatment of Southern blacks under the Jim Crow laws.
In its frenetic effort to conclude an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the Bush Administration is following the unfortunate performance of the Clinton Administration, which spent more than seven years courting Arafat and, where necessary, delivering him Israeli concessions. In a July 2000 summit at Camp David, Maryland, where President Clinton presided, then-Israeli Prime Minister (and current Defense Minister) Ehud Barak made a generous peace offer to Arafat, which included sharing control of Jerusalem and turning over Gaza and nearly all the West Bank to the PA. Arafat rejected the deal and went to war against Israel several months later. Clinton spent the final months of his presidency unsuccessfully trying to salvage the “peace process” that Arafat had destroyed.
To be sure, there are major differences in the overall foreign policy performances of the Clinton and Bush Administrations. After September 11, 2001, President Bush acted vigorously in mobilizing the full force of the United States government to destroy al Qaeda and prevent it from staging another attack on the American homeland. He toppled terrorist-supporting regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush also deserves credit for destroying the Pakistan-based A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network; putting Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya out of the nuclear weapons business; developing the Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict rogue regimes’ efforts to engage in weapons of mass destruction proliferation; and building missile defense capabilities.
Although most of the major successes occurred during Bush’s first term, Bush by far has a better record of accomplishment than Clinton. Most of the Clinton presidency was spent in one form or another downplaying or whitewashing altogether the North Korean nuclear weapons danger. In October 1994, the Clinton Administration signed the Agreed Framework, an agreement brokered by Jimmy Carter in which North Korea promised to freeze work at its known plutonium producing facilities and eventually to come into compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But, as nuclear proliferation expert Henry Sokolski points out, within two years of the signing of that 1994 deal, U.S. intelligence judged that the North Koreans had built two nuclear weapons – in other words, that they were hoarding them in violation of the accord. “Clinton administration officials knew this,” Sokolski, head of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, wrote in the Weekly Standard in 2002. “They decided however to dispute the intelligence finding and instead had Madeleine Albright announce that the deal had ‘eliminated’ the North Korean threat.”
This behavior continued through the end of the Clinton Administration, culminating in Secretary of State Albright’s trip to North Korea in October 2000 where she gushed about what a “beautiful” city Pyongyang was and joined the North Korean dictator in applauding a demonstration in a stadium praising North Korean missile and nuclear programs. She had hoped to lay the groundwork for a visit by President Clinton before the end of his presidency, but that idea was later dropped. In the end, the serious problem of North Korea’s weapons programs was dumped on the incoming Bush Administration.
During his first term, President Bush, after replacing the Clinton holdovers at State with people like Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and Nonproliferation John Bolton, pursued a more realistic approach of demanding that North Korea come clean about its weapons programs. But on Feb. 13, 2007, the State Department signed an agreement with Pyongyang that was supposed to eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat. None of that has happened. North Korea continues to refuse to fully disclose the details of its uranium enrichment efforts and its foreign nuclear collaboration. The latter is more necessary than ever in the wake of the Sept. 6, 2007 Israeli military raid which destroyed a Pyongyang-Damascus facility in northern Syria that may have been involved in nuclear weapons production.
Unfortunately, despite Pyongyang’s intransigence, Foggy Bottom continues offering carrots. The chief State Department envoy negotiating with North Korea, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, suggests removing the DPRK from the U.S. terrorism list and normalizing relations. The State Department toned down a recent human rights report on North Korea, and Rice publicly heaped scorn on President Bush’s special human rights envoy Jay Lefkowitz when he said publicly that Washington should reconsider its détente policy with Pyongyang.
The good news is that, unlike Albright, Rice has yet to go to Pyongyang in an effort to court Kim Jong-Il. The bad news is that with almost 10 months remaining in the Bush administration, remain, the State Department’s approach to North Korea is getting more and more Clintonized.