On the list of diplomatic moves one would not have expected this year, President George W. Bush's writing a personalized letter to North Korea's Kim Jong Il would have to rank No. 1. Early in his administration Mr. Bush had placed North Korea on his "axis of evil" list, and he later called its leader a "tyrant." That was then.
Now about to start its last year in office and in serious need of a foreign policy triumph, the Bush administration spent a great deal of time and effort in 2007 trying to persuade Pyongyang to actually take the steps it promised to do on the way to giving up its nuclear weapons program. America's top negotiator on North Korea, Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill, with the encouragement of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, made at least 14 trips to Asia this year related to making progress on a deal.
And there has been progress. The reactor at Yongbyon is being disabled with American experts looking on and two of Hill's trips involved visits to North Korea, including one to Yongbyon. The Bush letter was a very high-profile, personalized way to keep the pressure on -- especially to have the North Koreans meet their commitment to produce a list of all nuclear activities by the end of the year. Still, there are skeptics who doubt North Korea's intentions and think they are just stringing along the international community.
The other remaining member of the axis of evil, Iran, continued to defy not only the Bush administration but also the U.N. and the E.U. as it continued work on uranium enrichment with the aim, Washington says, of building a nuclear weapon. At year's end there were two important developments. Russia and China continued to delay efforts in the U.N. Security Council to draft a third sanctions resolution against Iran for its continued defiance of previous resolutions and agreements.
More unusual, however, was the public finding of America's intelligence community that Iran had stopped its efforts to make a nuclear weapon in 2003. While the so-called NIE, or National Intelligence Estimate, did say it continued work in other areas which in the future could be used to make a weapon, the NIE finding was a political as well as a diplomatic shock. John Bolton said "it leaves the entire Bush policy (on Iran) on the floor of the ocean." Others questioned the intelligence community's decision to go public, some seeing it as an open challenge to Mr. Bush (and Vice President Dick Cheney) and a way to take the possibility of American military action against Iran's nuclear facilities off the table. Whatever the real case, Iran is still very much on the outs with Washington.
Iraq saw only limited diplomatic progress this year. Ryan Crocker, America's ambassador in Baghdad did have several meetings with Iran's ambassador to talk about ways to reduce Tehran's role in attacks against U.S. troops inside Iraq, but efforts by Rice and other senior officials met with little progress on such issues as national reconciliation, de-Baathification and the passage of a hydrocarbon law which would deal with distribution of oil revenues. The good news in Iraq this year was on the military side, where the surge strategy did result in a lowering of American casualties.
The year also saw the start of a big push by the administration to broker a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Rice made eight trips to the region before convening an international peace conference in late November at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. More than 40 countries attended, including a dozen Arab states, most of which do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
Interestingly, two Arab countries the U.S. has gone to war to save - Iraq and Kuwait - did not agree to send representatives to Annapolis. But the Saudis sent their foreign minister and the Syrians, although still on the outs with Washington, sent their deputy foreign minister. If Damascus intended to send a signal it was warming towards Washington it probably wasn't helpful when Mr. Bush, at a news conference this week, said "My patience ran out on President (Bashar) Assad a long time ago."
The president and his secretary of state remain among the few optimists who think a peace deal can be achieved in the next 13 months. Their next move to encourage progress will be a visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank in January - basically a diplomatic booster shot to keep the Israelis and Palestinians on track.
In other unusual developments, the new secretary of defense, Robert Gates, publicly called for Congress to add money to the State department's budget, something almost unheard of in bureaucratic circles. Rice needs all the help she can get and more financial support from Congress is just the start. As it happened Rice had her own problems back home in Foggy Bottom. A few foreign service officers complained loudly and publicly that the secretary's plan to force people to serve in Baghdad if enough volunteers were not found did not go over well with everyone and the prospect of people resigning rather than going to Baghdad was averted only when enough volunteers finally raised their hands.
All in all, 2007 was a very active year but also a very strange one. Who knows, if Mr. Bush's letter writing tactic works with Kim Jong Il perhaps 2008 will see the mail box stuffed with envelopes addressed to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.