No Diplomatic Dog Days

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Friday, May 27, 20005. Rice spoke about the Iraq war and other global conflicts. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
It is summertime and many diplomats have gone off to grandma's house or the beach just like a lot of other people. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even got out of town for a couple of days of rest and relaxation.

But this August finds Rice and some of her most senior diplomats engaged in serious diplomatic and politically important negotiations affecting the Bush administration's foreign policy goals. Every top agenda item seems to be getting high profile attention.

In Baghdad, the new U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, is working overtime to meet an Aug. 15 deadline to complete work on a draft constitution. This is a hugely important step if Iraq is to transform itself into the democratic state envisioned by the Bush administration.

With mounting attacks from insurgents in recent weeks inflicting casualties on Iraqis and Americans, the Bush administration badly needs to see the Iraqis reach this benchmark, if for no other reason than as an indicator that the eventual withdrawal of American troops is a plausible goal, sooner rather than later.

In Beijing, negotiations aimed at getting North Korea to scrap its nuclear program have restarted and already talks have been held for 13 days. The talks are scheduled to resume the last week of August. After 36 bilateral sessions with other delegations, including six with the North Koreans, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill told reporters "if we don't get a deal, it won't be because we haven't tried."

In Vienna, the U.N.'s atomic energy agency — the IAEA — had to convene an emergency meeting of its governing board this week because Iran backed out of an agreement to freeze its nuclear activities. In breaking seals the IAEA placed at its Isfahan facility and taking steps to resume uranium enrichment, which it says is for civilian purposes, Iran has again done exactly the opposite of what the Bush administration and others wanted.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said he hoped a way could be found to "put the genie back into the bottle," but the best the IAEA board of governors could do was to pass a resolution expressing its "serious concern." Now, President Bush and Secretary Rice have to decide to whether or not to force the issue by bringing it before the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions. China, however, has already signaled its view that Vienna, not New York, is the place to deal with the issue, so no easy solution appears in sight on this account.

In Gaza, there has been a lot of diplomatic activity before Israel begins to unilaterally withdraw settlers from the Gaza strip and four Northern West Bank settlements, a move scheduled to begin next week. Rice's envoy, Lt. Gen. William Ward, has been working with Palestinian security officials to prepare them to take over, hopefully preventing Hamas and other terrorist groups from filling the security vacuum.

Although there are some positive signs that President Mahmoud Abbas may be ready to stand up to Hamas, it is not at all clear whether he will or that he will be successful if he does. James Wolfensohn, who represents not only Washington but also the U.N., the E.U. and Russia, is busy trying to address economic and political aspects of the withdrawal. As with most things that involve negotiations in the Middle East, this looks like it'll go down to next week's deadline.

This is a pretty full diplomatic plate for any administration and, of course, it only represents the most pressing issues. Advancing the administration's efforts to bring democracy to the greater Middle East on a wider scale, solving Sudan's political and humanitarian crises, and pressing for a package to reform the 60-year-old United Nations are among other issues being dealt with as administration officials look to the remaining few weeks of summer "vacation."

Mr. Bush received an update on all these issues when Rice and a few senior aides went to the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas, to brief the boss. Afterward, most of the State Department delegation left, but Rice was expected to stay as the Bush's guest through the weekend. This visit merely confirms what everyone in Washington knows: six months into her job, Rice maintains unprecedented access to her boss.