WASHINGTON (AP) -- More and more, top government diplomats are straying from official Bush foreign policy as the administration wanes, leaving Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice struggling to keep them in check.
Twice just this week, Rice and her aides had to rebuke, disavow or otherwise try to explain away public words or actions by three top officials on delicate affairs ranging from North Korea and Iran to the violence in Kenya.
The trouble began on Jan. 17, when Jay Lefkowitz, the special U.S. envoy for human rights in North Korea, delivered a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think-tank in which he trashed the six-nation talks aimed at persuading the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons program.
Then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, violated Washington's long-standing policy on contact with officials from the Islamic government of Iran by showing up on a stage in Switzerland with the Iranian foreign minister. And the top U.S. envoy for Africa used the emotionally and politically charged phrase "ethnic cleansing" to describe the postelection violence in Kenya.
Whether or not any of those incidents will have lasting implications, the gaffes and lapses on sensitive diplomatic matters have been embarrassing for an administration that attaches great importance to being "on message."
First, Lefkowitz said he believed North Korea would still have nuclear weapons when President Bush leaves office. "After four years of six-party talks," he declared, "it makes sense to review the assumptions upon which previous policy was built and make sure they are still valid today."
The administration has attached great importance to the process he was questioning. Lefkowitz, a New York lawyer with close White House ties, earned an unusually sharp slapdown from Rice for his speech, which many suspect was a calculated attempt by hawks to derail what they see as appeasing North Korea.
"Jay Lefkowitz has nothing to do with the six-party talks," Rice told reporters. "He's the human rights envoy. That's what he knows. That's what he does. He doesn't work on the six-party talks. He doesn't know what's going on in the six-party talks and he certainly has no say in what American policy will be in the six-party talks."
Rice added that she did not think Lefkowitz's remarks would complicate U.S. efforts with its negotiating partners - China, Japan, Russia and South Korea - or with North Korea, saying: "I would doubt very seriously that they would recognize (his) name."
Yet, even with the transcript of Lefkowitz's address removed from the State Department's official Web site, the North Koreans did notice.
On Monday, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency, which once described the hawkish former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, as "the scum of the earth," said, "Lefkowitz was impudent enough to poke his nose into the nuclear issue, only to bring shame to himself."
Carelessness or lack of discipline were the main factors in the two latest diplomatic blunders.
Unbeknownst to higher-ups in Washington, Khalilzad accepted a last-minute invitation on Jan. 26 to participate in a discussion on "Understanding Iran's Foreign Policy" at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. And he sat next to Manouchehr Mottaki, foreign minister of the nation that the administration has accused of trying to develop nuclear weapons under cover of an atomic energy program.
While Khalilzad said nothing that differed from the administration's hard line on Iran, his mere presence on stage with the Iranian was enough to cause palpitations in Washington. Officials claimed they learned of his participation only after video of the event was posted on YouTube.
The administration has strict rules regarding contact with Iran that allow only a small number of very senior officials to meet with Iranian representatives and then only with permission from Washington. In social settings, U.S. diplomats are instructed to be polite but not to engage in any substantive discussions with Iranian officials.
"There wasn't any permission in advance," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday when asked about Khalilzad's appearance with Mottaki, which the spokesman insisted did not signal any shift in policy.
"We haven't done these sorts of things in the past and I don't expect we will (in the future), absent some agreement from the Iranians that they are going to suspend their nuclear enrichment and reprocessing related activities," McCormack said.
McCormack was also busy this week trying to tamp down possible repercussions from comments made Wednesday by the top U.S. envoy for Africa, Jendayi Frazer. She had spoken of "ethnic cleansing" in Kenyan violence.
He took great pains to distance the administration from the term, refusing to repeat the words "ethnic cleansing," which many regard as a precursor to "genocide," in reference to the violence in Kenya that has claimed more than 800 lives and displaced tens of thousands in the past three weeks.
McCormack acknowledged that the situation in Kenya was of great concern and said some violent incidents and displacements appeared to be driven by ethnicity, but he also said it was too early to characterize the situation in such terms. He indicated that Frazer, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, had been speaking for herself.
"She made some comments based on her firsthand assessment from a trip several weeks ago," McCormack told reporters. Asked if the Bush administration shared Frazer's assessment, he replied: "She said what she said. I am going to stick to what I said."
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