President Bush has stymied a strong push by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to engage Iran and Cuba more directly in his twilight days of power. Better never than late seems to be Bush's motto in diplomacy. This time he is right.
Rice's initiative to open a U.S. interests section in Tehran, widely reported as imminent for months, was in fact put on indefinite hold by Bush in the summer. A more tentative Cuban outreach, known only to a handful of officials in the administration, has met stronger resistance from the president, according to one opponent of the idea.
Rice's initiatives make sense -- in themselves, and as far as they go. But unfortunately they arrive as too little, too late. She perseveres in trying to get Bush to reverse himself once again on Iran, however, and could yet succeed.
Here is the problem: These are isolated gestures, not part of the broad overhaul of strategy that is needed toward two countries that Bush has treated as enemies for 96 percent of his tenure. Modest openings to Tehran and to Havana are better left to the incoming Obama administration to use as wedges for change, rather than being handled as endings -- and legacy -- for Bush.
That is particularly true of the proposal to send U.S. diplomats to Tehran for the first time in nearly 30 years. Under discussion for more than a year, the idea was approved in principle at the White House during the summer. In early August, Undersecretary of State William Burns told European diplomats in Geneva that the decision would be announced shortly, according to diplomatic sources.
Burns -- a serious, highly capable diplomat -- would not have been freelancing or misleading his partners on this serious topic. But as time elapsed, European diplomats who support this step concluded that Bush had backed off the earlier approval.
His reasons lie behind a curtain of official silence. U.S. officials suggest that the Russian invasion of Georgia and other international problems have crowded discussion of the Tehran interests section off the president's agenda. They claim that Rice has in fact not yet made a formal proposal to Bush.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told me this week that Rice believes transferring the responsibility from Swiss diplomats, who currently handle U.S. issues with the Iranians, is "an interesting idea" that is still being studied.
But Vice President Cheney is known to have resisted the proposal on Iran from the beginning. He is reportedly concerned that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will brandish the decision as a U.S. concession to his belligerence and undercut his more pragmatic opponents in Iran's presidential election in June.
That election should guide President-elect Barack Obama's strategy to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions, its intrusive role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its support for radical Arab movements. By emphasizing that it is ready for a fresh start with the Iranian people, a new administration could deny Ahmadinejad the atmosphere of mutual hostility that is so politically useful to him. And putting diplomats on the ground to issue visas and reach out to Iranian citizens on a variety of issues is a good first step in such a strategy.
Engagement has long been a no-brainer. But that move also needs to be part of a broader understanding with Washington's European Union, Russian and Chinese partners on developing tougher sanctions and richer incentives to get Iran to halt work on its nuclear program. Bush simply does not have the time to obtain all that before Jan. 20.
Rice also has a good argument about moving toward a better diplomatic relationship with Cuba by upgrading the existing U.S. interests section in Havana. This would have been accomplished by assigning more -- and more senior -- American diplomats to a stand-alone section there, as I understand it.
The State Department sent a team headed by its then-inspector general, Howard Krongard, to Havana a year ago to chart a path for full diplomatic relations with a post-Castro Cuba. That low-profile visit also sparked ideas about enlarging the interests section if change occurred under the existing government as well.
Rice reportedly conveyed those ideas to the White House. McCormack, Rice's spokesman, declined to comment beyond saying that he had not heard of any initiative by Rice on Cuba.
Bush has told some associates that he put off decisions in order to keep Iran and the even more politically explosive issue of Cuba out of the just-concluded presidential campaign. That is to his credit. He should keep on waiting.