Monday, June 12, 2006

Rice's Offer to Iran Spurs Unease From Right

Paul Richter, The Los Angeles Times:
While the Bush administration's offer to negotiate with Iran was winning praise from many quarters, conservative commentator Michael Ledeen sat down last week to write a column with a far different point of view.

Under the title "Is Bill Clinton Still President?" Ledeen compared President Bush's conditional offer to Iran to the Clinton administration's "appeasement" of North Korea in the 1990s. Then, he wrote, it won't be long before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice borrows one of former Secretary Madeleine Albright's trademark big hats "and goes to Tehran to dance with the dictator" — an allusion to Albright's controversial trip to Pyongyang in 2000. READ MORE

As Ledeen's column for National Review Online suggests, the Bush administration's Iran move has compounded many conservatives' concerns about the direction of U.S. foreign policy under the leadership of Rice's State Department. Many fear the administration has lost some of its forcefulness. They are unhappy with the normalization of ties with Libya, the proposed nuclear deal with India, the seeming slowdown in U.S. efforts to democratize the Middle East — which was a cornerstone of Bush's second inaugural address — as well as the handling of the Iraq war.

Bush's slide among foreign policy conservatives came as he was completing a round of attention to domestic base-voter issues such as same-sex marriage, flag burning and estate tax repeal. However, disaffection among his conservative foreign policy critics may not be as easy for Bush to address.

"In conservative circles there's an unease; I wouldn't call it a rebellion at this point, but an unease," said Marshall Wittmann, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "There's an increasing fear that the State Department has taken over foreign policy, and there's been a retreat from first-term foreign policy tenets."

Last month, as Rice rolled out the Iran proposal, her senior staff contacted influential conservative editors and pundits in hopes that a full explanation of the deal would head off criticism from the right.

The effort helped mute reactions, commentators said. But the new initiative has drawn criticism, if not wholesale condemnation, from conservative opinion leaders such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the National Review magazine, and conservative stalwarts such as American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin and former Reagan administration official Frank J. Gaffney Jr., among others.

So far, only a few conservative members of Congress have joined the conservative foreign policy experts' complaints — in public, at least. This is partly because they believe Bush has a weak hand and few options, said Wittmann, now with the centrist Progressive Policy Institute.

Nevertheless, the discontent marks a challenge for Bush at a time when he is trying to rebuild conservative support. Wittmann predicted that elected officials would "eventually follow the lead of the intellectuals" in questioning the administration approach.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Iran proposal had strong support, with the "vast majority saying they favored it, or 'let's wait and see how it turns out.' "

Some conservative analysts say the underlying source of concern is the war in Iraq, which some fear America may lose. They say the administration seems to lack the energy or resolve to take tough positions with adversaries, and may become immersed in drawn-out negotiations with Iran that give Tehran more time to develop its nuclear capabilities.

Many are unhappy that Vice President Dick Cheney has been less of a force on foreign policy, and that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has also stepped back from his prominent perch during the first term.

At the same time, some conservatives have gone after Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns, who has been Rice's point man on Iran and India, contending that the veteran diplomat is too ready to compromise. But others say that Burns has become a target in part because conservatives don't want to publicly attack his boss, Rice, who is close to the president and one of the most popular Republican figures in the country.

Several of the conservative analysts say it's unsettling that the Iran deal resembles the stymied nuclear negotiations with North Korea under Clinton, including the offer of light-water nuclear reactors and the possibility of six-nation talks. In 2000, when Albright visited, she was whisked away by leader Kim Jong Il — to a dance exhibition in his honor.

Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview that the offer of the reactors showed "we're doing the same thing" in Iran.

"We can try to put a nice patina on it, but it's rewarding intransigence" on the part of Tehran, which has refused to give ground on its nuclear activities, Rubin said.

He criticized the offer to Iran in part for its lack of explicit sanctions. "We're not really threatening them with anything," he said, calling the U.S. approach "abject surrender."

In an editorial this month, the Wall Street Journal suggested Bush might be allowing himself to be set up by less hawkish advisors in his approach to Iran.

"Perhaps Ms. Rice is right that direct diplomacy is essential to expose Iran's real purposes," the newspaper said. "But given Iran's track record, we'd say the secretary has walked her president out on a limb where the pressure will soon build on him to make even more concessions."

The unease besets not just neoconservatives, who believe the United States must assert itself in reshaping undemocratic regimes, but also more traditional conservatives, who tend to be dubious about such ambitious efforts.

The National Review, which expresses a more traditional conservatism, said in an editorial that the Iran deal would have been justified if it persuaded the ruling clerics to dismantle their nuclear program.

"But the reality is that we have probably given up more than we have gained," the magazine concluded.

Gaffney, a former Reagan administration Defense official who disagrees with the Iran policy, said drastic changes had taken place both in administration policies and the people in charge.

"This presidency is mutating before our eyes, in ways that will only exacerbate the president's problems with his base," said Gaffney, now president of the Center for Security Policy, a think tank.

In addition to their worries about Iran, conservatives have complained about the administration's civil nuclear deal with India, contending that overlooking India's past infractions will encourage other countries, such as Iran, to build nuclear arsenals in defiance of international norms.

Others have charged that the United States has been not moved strongly enough to halt Russia's trend toward authoritarianism. And critics have argued that the administration has done too little to stop antidemocratic moves by the governments of Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Syria and China — despite the president's commitment in the second inaugural to spreading democracy abroad.

Rubin and Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed piece that Libya alone changed everything. If the lofty, pro-democracy rhetoric of Bush's inaugural speech defined the president's second term precepts, the normalization of U.S. relations with Libya "marks an effective end to the Bush doctrine," they said.


Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin in Vienna contributed to this report.