Not talking has already lost Bush six precious years

PRESIDENT George W Bush doesn’t appear to be a great user of his cellphone, unlike President Nicolas Sarkozy of France who seems to have it permanently attached to his ear. Some of us, like my teenage daughter, wonder out loud why he shies away from use of his cell; others like her father wonder why, on too many occasions, he has given the impression that he has no time to talk.

By Jonathan Power

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Published: Sun 22 Jul 2007, 8:56 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:13 AM

Bush at no stage countenanced engaging Saddam Hussein in talk. In July 2002 the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, told Prime Minister Tony Blair that “Bush had made up his mind to take military action” but the case was thin. Saddam Hussein “was not threatening his neighbours”, nor indeed anyone else.

As the countdown to war gathered speed the Republican hawk, Richard Perle, said that Saddam had offered “ a quite astonishing proposal”. Iraq was saying it had no weapons of mass destruction and that Washington could “send 2,000 FBI agents to look at whatever they wanted”. Moreover, it was prepared to hand over Abdur Rehman Yasin, who had been indicted for participating in the earlier bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Iraq also offered “full support for any US plan” in the peace process in Palestine. Finally, Saddam promised the US “first priority as it relates to Iraq oil and mining rights”. The chief of operations of Iraq’s intelligence services, Hassan El-Obeidi, carried this amazing message to Perle. The CIA apparently rebuffed Perle and he was told “Tell them that we shall see them in Baghdad.”

In June 1998, the Taleban chief, Mullah Omar, made a secret deal with Prince Turki Al Faisal, the then head of Saudi Arabian foreign intelligence, to hand over Osama bin Laden for trial in Saudi Arabia. But when later that year the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania prompted President Bill Clinton to order the firing of 79 missiles on Khost in Afghanistan in an attempt to kill bin Laden, Mullah Omar changed his mind. But by April, 2000 the Mullah “wanted to get rid of bin Laden but did not know how”. The Pakistani diplomat, Iftikhar Murshed, records in his memoirs that Omar told him that he was in a bind and that a group of ulema from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and a third Islamic country should decide the issue. The proposal was rejected by the Saudis and the Americans. But a year later the proposal was revived. David Ottoway and Joe Stephens reported in the Washington Post on October 29th 2001 that the deal fell through because the US demanded that “bin Laden face trial in the US.”

With North Korea phenomenal progress was made by the Clinton administration in persuading President Kim Jong Il to stall its nuclear weapons programme. Indeed many believe this was Clinton’s finest foreign policy accomplishment. But Bush with his “I’ve got a visceral reaction to this guy” undid all the good work. The next major step would have meant diplomatic recognition by the US, a peace treaty and large scale economic engagement. In return the North would have re-joined the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Only now after North Korea has successfully tested a bomb has Bush allowed the serious give-and-take talking to begin again. And it is showing results. On Monday North Korea confirmed that it had shut down the reactor at the heart of its atomic weapons programme.

While the North Korean bomb does not over trouble its neighbours an Iranian one obviously would. Yet Bush has spurned attempts by Iran to be conciliatory. Teheran on a number of occasions has wanted to talk. In 2003 Iran sent, via the Swiss embassy, a message offering a compromise on the nuclear issue. It offered “active Iranian support for Iraqi stabilisation”, Iranian “support for a peaceful solution in the Middle East”. It covered disarmament, compromise on the nuclear issue that would forestall the building of a nuclear weapon, regional security and economic cooperation. In return it asked that “Iran did not belong to the axis of evil” The offer was rejected out of hand. Precious time was lost. Now, very gingerly, the US has decided to talk. But its threat to use force still hangs like a sword of Damocles over Iran, deterring Iranian cooperativeness. Even Barack Obama goes along with this wielding of the big stick.

Slowly, Bush is learning the value of talk and engagement. It will be impossible to make up for the damage that has been done, but he now has the chance to stop it getting any worse. He needs to use up his talk time.

Jonathan Power is a widely published commentator based in London. He can be reached at

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