The Democratic takeover of Congress will raise the profile of lawmakers who have repeatedly urged the Bush administration to talk to key adversaries such as Iran, North Korea and Syria, increasing pressure on the White House to stop placing restrictions or conditions on such discussions.
The incoming chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Relations Committee -- Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Rep. Tom Lantos of California, respectively -- have long argued that the administration's approach to dealing with adversaries has hamstrung diplomacy. Iran and Syria are problematic neighbors of Iraq, and critics have charged that not talking to Damascus and Tehran has hurt efforts to end the violence in Iraq.
Although outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) is also an advocate of greater engagement, the new Democratic leaders say they are more likely to call hearings and demand explanations from administration officials. Lantos, who has often visited such countries as Libya and North Korea, said he is "passionately committed to having a dialogue with people we disagree with."
Since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took office nearly two years ago, some restrictions on dealing with Iran and North Korea have been loosened. On North Korea, the administration has rejected calls for high-level bilateral contacts but allows them within a six-nation negotiations focusing on North Korea's nuclear programs.
On Iran, the administration this year offered to join multilateral talks on Iran's nuclear program -- but only if Tehran first suspends uranium enrichment. There has been virtually no dialogue with Syria since its suspected involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
"This has spelled the death knell of the neo-conservative approach," Biden said. He added that "Secretary Rice is much more open to approaches different than Cheney and Rumsfeld than people think she is," although State Department officials disputed that.
The Iraq Study Group, headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), is also expected to address the issue of whether dialogue with Iran and Syria would aid the war effort. President Bush and Democratic lawmakers have said they are eagerly awaiting the study group's conclusions.
Open to ideas
State Department officials said that yesterday they are open to ideas, but that the change in Congress will not directly affect administration policies. Officials said criticism of the administration's approach is often misguided. The administration considers talks with adversaries as a particular "card" to play in diplomacy, but merely talking does not represent a policy, one official said. Dialogue with Syria, for instance, has been limited because the administration did not want it to affect the U.N. investigation into Hariri's killing.
Another Rice aide said he does not think Democrats will press too hard at first because they are still vulnerable to charges of being weak on national security. But he acknowledged Congress would raise tough questions, noting that North Korea's recent decision to return to the six-party talks "relieved some of the pressure on us for that."
The nomination of Robert Gates as defense secretary could also change the dynamics of the administration's internal debates. Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is a fierce foe of engaging with enemies, but Gates two years ago co-wrote a Council on Foreign Relations report that called for a "direct dialogue" with Iran.
"The current lack of sustained engagement with Iran harms U.S. interests in a critical region," the report said, arguing the United States should explore "common interests" with Iran as it did with the Soviet Union or China when they were U.S. adversaries. The report suggested that lifting unilateral sanctions and allowing U.S.-Iranian commercial relations to flourish "could be a powerful tool" in dealing with Iran.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and co-author of the report, said he hopes Gates's presence at Bush administration policy debates will bring a "a degree of rationality, common sense, balance and historical perspective" to the table.
Brzezinski, stressing he was speaking for himself, said the administration's requirement that Iran give up enrichment before talks can start is not a "fair bargain" because Iran has a right to enrich under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and thus would be reluctant to give it up for simply talking. He said lifting trade embargoes or dismantling sanctions would be a greater inducement to start a productive dialogue with Iran on a range of issues.
Asked yesterday about Gates's writings on Iran, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said: "The president and Bob Gates are pretty, pretty confident themselves that they're on the same page on the basic pillars of the president's foreign policy."