Bush is straight-talker, so what's EU-3?

June 15, 2008 6:43:24 PM PDT
President Bush is a straight-talking guy, so what's he doing talking about the EU-3? It's part of Bush diplomatic-speak. Derided by some as a cowboy during his first term, Bush is ending his presidency knee-deep in group diplomacy.

Throughout his weeklong trip through Europe he's talked a lot about ways the U.S. is huddling with other countries to push for change in rival nations like North Korea and Iran, or push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Diplomatic rhetoric that sounds like alphabet soup is not as snazzy as statements like "dead or alive" - a comment he uttered after the Sept. 11 attacks about Osama bin Laden and one he later had second thoughts about saying.

On Iran, there's the EU (European Union), the EU-3 (Germany, France and Britain), and if you add the United States, Russia and China, you get the EU-3 plus 3. If Italy eventually makes it into the club, it will become the EU-3 plus 4.

On North Korea, it's the six-party negotiations pitting Pyongyang against South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

And don't forget the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers - the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - all nudging Israel and the Palestinians toward a peace accord.

How can the president keep it straight, let alone have confidence that any of these thorny disputes can be resolved in the seven months he has left in office?

The EU-3 is leading the charge on a diplomatic effort to try to get Iran to stop enriching uranium, a pathway to a nuclear weapon. That diplomacy, which Bush talked about throughout his trip, hit a snag Saturday when Tehran said no to a package of incentives the EU group was offering if Iran stopped enriching uranium.

Expecting the rejection, Bush was working to bolster the European partners' resolve to levy stiffer sanctions on Iran. It's unlikely, however, that the nuclear standoff, which Europe fears could lead the U.S. or Israel to attack Iran, will be resolved before Bush leaves office.

Bush hinted at that in Slovenia, the first stop on his farewell trip to Europe.

"I leave behind a multilateral framework to work this issue," Bush said. "You know, one country can't solve all problems. I fully agree with that. A group of countries can send a clear message to the Iranians, and that is: `We're going to continue to isolate you. We'll continue to work on sanctions. We'll find new sanctions if need be if you continue to deny the just demands of a free world."'

In an interview in Rome with The Observer of London, Bush said the multinational forum in place on the Iranian nuclear issue will help future presidents deal more effectively with it.

"I have changed the foreign policy of the United States to make it more multilateral because I understand that diplomacy without consequences is ineffective," he said. "Unilateral sanctions don't work."

Alan Henrikson, director of diplomatic studies at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has heavily influenced the Bush administration's current diplomatic approach.

"She deserves a fair amount of credit for this historic shift, but the main cause surely is that, through trial and error, the go-it-alone style of international leadership the Bush administration was offering proved that it just wasn't working," Henrikson said.

The White House disagrees that Bush has ever tried to go it alone.

"In Afghanistan and Iraq there were large coalitions," White House press secretary Dana Perino said Saturday. "That dwindled in Iraq, no doubt about it. But it didn't start out that way. That is a fact."

She also said that while the six-party talks on North Korea and the EU-3-led talks on Iran took time to assemble, "what we're seeing now is the wisdom of the president's vision for these diplomatic formats as they start to solidify and bear results."

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, thinks Bush is listening too exclusively to Rice at the State Department - an agency he calls a "European outpost." He suggests the problem is not any kind of unilateralism on the part of America, but "Europe's unwillingness to do much of anything to stand up to external threats whether from Iran or from a newly resurgent Russia."

Bolton said he thinks that for the remainder of his presidency, Bush will be focused exclusively on Iraq and Afghanistan. "The rest is damage control, which is unfortunate," Bolton said.

It's unclear whether Bush's successor will keep the U.S. active in these diplomatic clubs.

Henrikson predicts the six-party talks on North Korea will continue beyond the Bush presidency, and might even be turned into a six-power organization for Northeast Asia, which does not have a formal multilateral-regional security structure.

"With regard to Iran, I would expect that (a Barack) Obama administration would adopt a more direct approach, without necessarily involving Obama himself in encounters with Iran's leadership," said Henrikson, who advocates for a U.S. ambassador in Tehran.

Regardless of their outcome, Bush's willingness to join in these diplomatic huddles has helped restore U.S.-European relations, said Steve Flanagan, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' international security program in Washington. The first foreign trip Bush took in his second term, for instance, was to Brussels, base of the European Union. That was seen as an admission by the Bush administration that it might not have utilized the Atlantic alliance as effectively as it could have in the first term, Flanagan said.

"The pragmatism of much of the second term's foreign policy has been much more appealing to the key European governments," he said. "But there are still differences that are out there and I think many of the European governments do recognize that some of these differences will persist either under an Obama or (John) McCain administration."