Foreign policy never seems to come easily to the Bush Administration. Consider the controversial light-water nuclear plant that Iran is building, with Russian help, at the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr. The prospect of Iran's mullahs controlling a 1,000-MW reactor capable of generating plutonium has worried Washington for years. With Tehran facing an Oct. 31 deadline for coming clean on its nuclear ventures, you'd think the Administration would have a clear take on Bushehr. Think again. There's the conciliatory view: "We could conceive of them keeping the reactor," says a senior State Department aide. If the Russians took back all the spent fuel, as they have proposed, "that would be acceptable." And the hard-line slant: "No way. That's not the policy," says a senior Administration official. The U.S. will never accept Bushehr "as long as we think they have a weapons program."
So what is it? Conciliation? Hard line? Such divisions have plagued President George W. Bush's approach to nuclear-security issues with both Iran and North Korea, the remaining points on the "axis of evil." The neocons argue that the only way to curb the suspected atomic ambitions of these regimes is to depose the rulers. The moderates believe that engaging adversaries in dialogue can diminish the threat more easily and cheaply. So the Bush team has alternately ignored, threatened, cajoled and coerced the two countries, driven not by a coherent strategy but by a disorderly struggle at the highest levels to find common tactical ground between two irreconcilable approaches, engagement and confrontation.
For the moment, a President viewed abroad as a go-it-alone cowboy is looking more like a born-again multilateralist. The potentially important deal that Iran signed with European leaders last week to slow its nuclear program could push Bush to accept a level of engagement with Tehran that his hard-line advisers have resisted. And his offer of a written, multinational security guarantee for North Korea if it gives up its nuclear ambitions could commit the U.S. to protracted negotiations there as well. A President famed for his harsh, admonitory tone struck a conciliatory note aboard Air Force One last week, telling reporters, "I've been saying all along that not every policy issue needs to be dealt with by force."
Bush has uttered similar words on occasion, but they have tended to get lost in the confrontational politics that the hard-line part of his Administration espouses. In the heady days after Saddam Hussein's statue fell in Baghdad's Firdos Square, when regime change seemed so easy, some hawks even suggested that North Korea or Iran should be next. But with the U.S. military still busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, intervention--if it ever was an option--seems out of the question. And as Bush heads into an uncertain election year, he may wish to avoid creating any new international crises.