On three key flash points -- North Korea, Iran and Sudan -- the Bush administration confronts the possibility that its current diplomatic approaches have reached the end of their effectiveness, forcing it to consider potentially riskier "Plan B" alternatives, administration officials and outside experts said.
Six-nation talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programs ended in failure yesterday, suggesting the format could be scrapped after more than three years of inconclusive results. Today, after months of negotiations, the U.N. Security Council may finally approve a relatively weak resolution sanctioning Iran for its pursuit of nuclear power, freeing the administration to try a more unilateral approach to punishing Tehran.
And Sudan faces a U.S.-imposed deadline of Dec. 31 to comply with demands that it allow more peacekeeping forces in the troubled region of Darfur -- or else U.S. officials might move toward such options as imposing a no-fly zone over Darfur.
In all three cases, the administration will probably need to cobble together new alliances of willing partners, sometimes over the opposition of rival powers such as Russia and China.
The shadow of the Iraq war hangs over all these issues, distracting the attention of top U.S. officials and limiting the leverage of the United States. "One of the challenges we face is that because Iraq is there, there is not a lot of oxygen in the room to think creatively about any of these problems," said Derek Chollet, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A senior administration official acknowledged yesterday that diplomatic approaches taken by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on these three issues may have hit real roadblocks. "It doesn't mean that you push aside what you have been doing," he said, but that the administration at the same time will look for other ways to tackle the problems.
Grindingly slow negotiations with N. Korea
On North Korea, it might be difficult for the administration to completely pull the plug on the six-party talks, in part because China, the host, has invested its diplomatic prestige. But many U.S. officials have concluded that the grindingly slow negotiations have simply let North Korea stall for time, allowing it to build up its nuclear stockpile and ultimately conduct a nuclear test.
At this week's talks, the first in 13 months, North Korean negotiators arrived with no instructions except to complain about a Treasury Department action against a Macau bank that resulted in the freezing of about $24 million in North Korean funds. U.S. officials said they had been led to believe that discussions on the Treasury action would take place on a parallel track with the nuclear discussions.
With no date set for resuming the six-party process, U.S. officials indicated they would seek to increase pressure on Pyongyang by tightening sanctions that were contained in a U.N. Security Council resolution passed after North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon in October. Japan is an eager partner in such a plan, but it would cause strains with South Korea. U.S. officials also increasingly hope that China, North Korea's main benefactor, will join in punishing Pyongyang because they believe its behavior this week was embarrassing to China.
But many analysts are not convinced that China will be willing to squeeze its neighbor that hard, fearing a collapse of the government. Zhang Liangui, one of China's top North Korea experts, wrote in a recent paper that while the nuclear test forever changed the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, the United States and China are headed toward a clash over how much pressure to place on North Korea. "Those who understand the North Korean style of doing things know that no economic and political sanctions" will have an effect, he wrote. "On the contrary, it will respond in an even more vehement manner."
Efforts to restrain Iran falter
On Iran, Rice has worked tirelessly this year to forge a coalition of the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, to confront the Islamic republic over its nuclear program. In May, she offered to end a 27-year ban on public U.S.-Iran talks if Iran would suspend its enrichment activities. Iran did not accept that offer, but Russia has balked at a tough sanctions resolution, suggesting it will be very difficult to bring a series of increasingly strong resolutions.
Even in weakened form, the resolution will be passed under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, reserved for "threats to peace." The administration intends to unleash the Treasury Department to make the case to banks and financial concerns that the risk of doing business with Iran has become too high now that it has been sanctioned under Chapter 7.
The administration also hopes to enlist other countries in the effort -- a sort of "coalition of the willing" -- but that may be difficult given the broad economic ties many European countries and Japan have with Iran.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, not weapons. If the United States cannot restrain Iran's nuclear program, pressure may grow for Bush to consider launching a preemptive strike on its facilities in the final two years of his term, analysts said.
No clear Plan B for Sudan
The options on Sudan -- where as many as 450,000 people have died and more than 2 million people have lost their homes in the Darfur region -- are also difficult if Sudan refuses to accept expanded peacekeeping forces. U.S. officials say one form of pressure will be pending indictments of Khartoum's leaders by the International Criminal Court. Another option is imposing a no-fly zone over Darfur, over the objections of Khartoum -- though that would require careful planning and probably the involvement of U.S. forces. China is a major investor in Sudan's petroleum industry and would be expected to block tough action at the Security Council.
Ivo H. Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the administration is confronting the limits of "traditional U.N.-reliant diplomacy," though he felt the administration had not invested enough time in devising true Plan B approaches for any of these issues. "Including Iraq, they have four real crises," he said. "But they have less leverage and less capability and less credibility to deal with any in a diplomatic way."