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July 23, 2008

Bush engages: Iran, N Korea and ... (almost) Syria

It's not news any longer that President Bush has reversed (or at least altered) course and begun to engage diplomatically with U.S. adversaries, over the objections of hard-line hawks inside and outside his administration.

But the past week has brought truly tangible evidence of the about-face.

It was only on Saturday that Undersecretary of State William Burns participated in a six-nation meeting with Iran on its nuclear program--the first time a U.S. representative had been in the room during such discussions. This came after years in which the White House insisted that the United States would only join the talks after Iran agreed to suspend its enrichment of uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons. Score one for the "we need to talk to our enemies" crowd.

Act Two came today, in the city-state of Singapore, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held her first substantive talks with her North Korean counterpart, Pak Ui Chun. The meeting, which also included officials from the other members of the "Six-party talks" on North Korea (China, Japan, Russia and South Korea), was aimed at getting agreement on procedures to verify the North's recent declaration of its nuclear programs.

Rice called it "a good meeting, no surprises." She said she shook hands with Pak. Twice. Score two for the "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war" gang.

It was almost a trifecta. But alas (or, Thank Goodness!, depending on your perspective), it was not to be.

A "private" delegation from Syria--not quite an "Axis of Evil" Country, but one Rice likes to describe as "Iran's sidecar"--is visiting Washington this week. The group was to include a senior adviser to Syria's foreign ministry. Just yesterday, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos told reporters that a top official from State's Near Eastern Affairs bureau would meet with the group, not in an official, government-to-government way, mind you, but in their capacity as private citizens. "There is a meeting," Gallegos said.

Now there's not a meeting. As reported by Syria expert Joshua Landis on his blog, Syria Comment, the senior Syrian official, Riad Daoudi, canceled his trip to Washington. Then today, the State Department did a 180-degree turn, and said it would not meet with remaining members of the delegation.  "Representatives from the State Department will not meet with this group from Syria," Gallegos said. "Upon review of their program, and changes in schedules," it did not work out, he said.

Daoudi stayed in Damascus to confer with officials from Turkey, which is mediating indirect talks between Syria and Israel -- talks to which the Bush administration has been noticeably cool.

Unclear whether it was Washington or Damascus that snubbed the other one first. Either way, Bush's new engagement policy evidently does not extend to Syria. Score one for the "isolate the bums" crowd.


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Warren Strobel

Cheryl - Good catch. Nick Burns is long gone. WILLIAM Burns has been in office a good few months now. ... I was working on something else regarding Nick Burns yesterday and must have had the name stuck in my brain.


Cheryl Rofer

Um, I think that was William Burns. He's replacing Nick, who is leaving (has left?) State.

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"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

jon, nancy & warren

Landay, Youssef and Strobel.

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