Even as the Bush administration engages in bloody combat with insurgents in Iraq, it continues its diplomatic efforts to head off potential confrontations with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear weapons programs.
Using regional groupings of allies to front its efforts, the administration is nearing critical points with the other two members of President George W. Bush's so-called axis of evil.
North Korea has refused for almost a year to attend planned meetings of the Six Party Talks, the Asia-Pacific group (China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the U.S. are the other members) it had agreed to deal with over the issue of how to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security guarantees and much needed economic aid.
Instead, Pyongyang has demanded bi-lateral talks with Washington, something the administration has refused to do, other than on the sidelines of the larger group meetings.
While Secretary of State Rice's new point man for North Korea, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, talks to our allies about how to pressure the North Koreans to return to the table, Kim Jong II's government counters with threats of its own, the most worrisome being that it will conduct a nuclear test with one of the bombs it is thought to have.
The standoff is troublesome and problematic for the Bush administration. Japan agrees with Washington's desire to increase the pressure on Pyongyang, but China and South Korea appear less willing to back measures which could push the North Koreans closer to a nuclear test, something everyone agrees would be a major problem. Senior state department officials say Washington's suggestion to China to restrict oil supplies to its neighbor was rejected by Beijing. But one senior official conceded "people are looking for next steps, looking for what do you do if they don't show up."
Iran is not nearly as far along in fulfilling its nuclear ambitions, but it seems just as determined as North Korea. The Bush administration is convinced it is using the cover of its civilian nuclear power program to develop a nuclear weapons capability.