May 17, 2006 11:04AM

Our Reckless Diplomacy

Some observers in Washington seem to think that the Bush administration can simultaneously browbeat Russia over its domestic politics and ask for its cooperation on matters like the Iranian nuclear issue. Britain’s Telegraph sheds light on the fact that it may not be that easy:

The American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, traded barbs during bad‐​tempered talks at a foreign ministers’ summit in New York on Iran’s nuclear programme.


One official in Washington said: “It was a pretty extraordinary session and everyone’s been talking about it in private since. It was certainly quite an introduction to the rough and tumble of the new job for [new British foreign secretary Margaret] Beckett.”

Mr Lavrov arrived at the Waldorf for the meeting seething about a speech on Kremlin policies delivered by Dick Cheney, the vice‐​president, the previous week in Lithuania. The Russian repeatedly complained about the comments and then threatened to veto a Security Council resolution, drafted by Britain and France and backed by the US, that would force Iran to abandon enrichment of uranium.

Although Moscow has made clear that it opposes any use of mandatory powers, the other ministers were left in no doubt that Mr Lavrov’s approach reflected fury over the Cheney speech. As the mood worsened, Mr Lavrov accused the Americans of seeking to undermine efforts by Britain, France and Germany to solve the crisis.

He singled out Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s number three, for particular flak, complaining about his criticism of Russian involvement in Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant. Already frustrated, Ms Rice, a Russia expert, took exception to his remarks about Mr Burns and curtly told her guest: “This meeting isn’t going anywhere.” The gathering in Ms Rice’s suite had been intended as a 30‐​minute chat before dinner but turned into a two‐​hour session. By the time the foreign ministers sat down to eat at 10.30pm, their sea bass was shrivelled and, to Mrs Beckett’s surprise, the bickering continued in front of senior officials.

From the Telegraph’s reporting, Rice may have been blindsided by Cheney’s confrontational rhetoric in Vilnius:

Last week’s developments also underscore tensions between Ms Rice and the men who effectively ran US foreign policy during George W Bush’s first term — Mr Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary. Ms Rice was annoyed that talks on Iran with Mr Lavrov were complicated by the vice president’s remarks but Mr Cheney and other hardliners want to send a tough message to Russia and also oppose US overtures to Iran and North Korea.

This is a reckless, unsophisticated form of diplomacy. Of course it would be better if Russia were more liberal. But that doesn’t change the fact that issuing very public condemnations of the Russian leadership is going to irritate the Russian leadership, making Russian cooperation on other (more important) American foreign policy objectives even more elusive. Right now, we need to put all of our efforts into making a serious attempt at peacefully denuclearizing Iran. Poisoning our relationship with Russia would be, as they like to say at the State Department, “unhelpful.”

But it appears that even the disaster in Iraq has not punctured the belief of some that the US is all‐​powerful and does not need to prioritize its foreign policy goals at all. If Mr. Cheney and his fellow‐​travelers continue undermining the (already feeble) US efforts at diplomacy, the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the Iran issue will get worse and worse.