While You Were Distracted

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Whether by happenstance or by design there's been a lot going on beyond the beltway and outside the super-heated coverage of the American presidential campaign. Some events such as the terrible tragedy at a school in Beslan, Russia have made front page headlines.

Others, like Iran's continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons, are getting some coverage but not as much as they may deserve.

Of course the White House would have us believe President George W. Bush is fully on top of all issues, foreign and domestic but it's stating the obvious to say neither Mr. Bush nor any other incumbent could be doing his regular "day job" and at the same time devote the time it takes to campaign for re-election.

So whether it's because foreign leaders know Mr. Bush is, shall we say, somewhat distracted, or because they don't care what Washington thinks, a number of leaders around the world, friend and foe alike, are making big decisions, with Washington not able to say much of any consequence about them.

In Putin's case, Washington has no quarrel with his stated efforts to crack down hard on the Chechen terrorists who killed more than 400 people, many of them children, in a school in southern Russia. Even though the administration's position is a preference for a political settlement, Washington cannot and will not argue about whatever methods the Russian leader takes to stop terrorists in his own backyard.

But, how to deal with Putin's other actions this week which amount to dialing back on Democratic reforms. Putin moved to centralize power and tighten his own grip on high level officials including picking those who can run for certain offices (regional governors) and he's continued his crackdown on the media and the prosecution of business leaders. Secretary of State Colin Powell could muster only a mild protest that this "is pulling back on some of the democratic reforms…" and, by the way, "…yes, we have some concerns about it, and we want to discuss them with the Russians." Powell will have his chance next week when he sees Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in New York during meetings at the United Nations.

Meanwhile, two members of Mr. Bush's axis of evil are not standing idly by while the U.S. is preoccupied in Iraq and Afghanistan during its own election year.

North Korea apparently has decided not to go ahead at this time with another round of the six party talks to discuss an end to its nuclear program in exchange for economic and security guarantees. Previously, they had agreed to sit down again by the end of September. Now there are signs they don't want to meet until after the American election in November. Is Kim Jong Il delaying because he thinks he might get a better deal if Mr. Bush loses, or is he just being his usual hard to read self? No one knows but there's not much the Bush administration can do about it. The same goes for attempts to analyze a mysterious explosion in North Korea. Some said it was a nuclear test. Powell said he didn't think that, but couldn't be exactly certain what it was.

In Iran, efforts to gain compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency's requirements on Iran's nuclear programs have also run into trouble, even after leaders in Tehran promised their cooperation. Washington, which does not have a direct dialogue with Tehran, has been struggling to get its European allies — Britain, France and Germany — to agree to move the matter to the U N security council, where possible sanctions could be debated. So far, no such luck. The matter likely will be put off until the IAEA's November meeting.

Even Mr. Bush's friends, like Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, another ally in the war on terrorism, is now said to be going back on a previous promise to give up another top post he holds, head of the country's armed forces. Will Washington care? Probably not enough to squawk about but if Musharraf thinks it might, now is as good a time as any to let the word get out about a change in plans.

Political leaders everywhere speak the same language and they understand Mr. Bush is preoccupied. So they're taking as much advantage as they can, or need, to advance their own agendas during this season of distraction in Washington.

By Charles M. Wolfson