Fiddling while Burns roams, part 3

In his most recent Wall Street Journal column last week, Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton discussed Iran’s nuclear threat. The column appeared before the Bush administration authorized Undersecretary of State William Burns to attend the ongoing EU-3 talks with Iran on its nuclear program in violation of its previously stated policy requiring the suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran as a precondition to direct American participation in such talks.

According to administration spokesman Dana Perino, Burns’s attendance was intended to signal the seriousness of American diplomatic efforts to reach a compromise solution with Iran regarding its nuclear program. On Saturday the talks adjourned with the latest EU-3 proposal being submitted to Iran for a period of 14 days.

In his column Bolton asserts that we have almost certainly lost the race between giving “strong incentives” (in the words of Barack Obama) for Iran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and its scientific and technological efforts to do just that. Iran has used the past five years of negotiations to advance its nuclear program. The talks show no prospect of reaching a resolution that will retard it.

Bolton considers the possibility of a military strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “There was a time when the Bush administration might itself have seriously considered using force,” Bolton says, “but all public signs are that such a moment has passed.” President Bush appears resigned to kicking this problem down the road for his successor to handle, under even more difficult circumstance than those of the present.

Over the weekend I criticized the Bush administration’s decision to dispatch Burns to attend the EU-3 talks with Iran, characterizing it as of a piece with other deflections from such previously stated Bush administration foreign policy positions regarding North Korea and the creation of a Palestinian state. By contrast, our friend Hugh Hewitt decries the hand-wringing on the right over Burns’s attendance at the meeting in Geneva: “Seems like a necessary ‘last chance’ offer to me, and Iran has apparently rejected it.” Hugh implies without stating that Burns’s attendance is a public display intended to justify American support for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, presumably by Israel, though Hugh doesn’t say.

Hugh’s reading of events is not unreasonable in the abstract. It is certainly possible that it is correct. Hugh doesn’t offer any evidence to support it, however, whereas the administration has provided reasonable ground for “hand-wringing” over its treatment of a wide array of the most serious foreign policy issues outside Iraq. Hugh does not consider the meaning of Burns’s attendance at the Geneva meeting with Iran in this context. Stephen Hayes, Hayes’s administration sources and I do.

UPDATE: As does Middle East Quarterly editor Michael Rubin in today’s Wall Street Journal.

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