President Bush has made his stance clear: The US doesn't negotiate directly with its enemies.
But after North Korea's apparent nuclear test this week – and problems with getting severe sanctions approved by the UN – that stance is now setting off a vigorous debate.
"In my view, it is not appeasement to talk to your enemies," James Baker, secretary of State for the former President Bush, said this week.
In key election states, the Republican National Committee is offering a different view. It's airing TV ads showing Madeleine Albright, secretary of State for former President Clinton, clinking glasses with Kim Jong Il and presenting the North Korean dictator with a basketball signed by Michael Jordan. Its point: "basketball diplomacy" doesn't work.
The debate shows how the White House's policy of not directly engaging adversaries – whether North Korea, Iran, Syria, or organizations like the Palestinians' Hamas and Lebanon's Hizbullah – is under intensifying fire, including from friendly circles.
Now is probably not the moment for the United States to approve the kind of bilateral negotiations North Korea wants, many agree. "There's going to have to be a timeout chair for North Korea," says Michael Green, who served as Asia director in the Bush White House's National Security Council until last December.
But others say the North Korea nuclear crisis, following questionable US diplomacy on this summer's war in Lebanon and a stalemate with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, is raising new challenges for the Bush administration's "no-talk-with- enemies" diplomatic approach.
"The reason we're hearing so much about this right now is that the policies towards Iran and North Korea are not working," says Geoffrey Kemp, a national security expert at the Nixon Center in Washington.
The Bush administration in its second term has embraced "multilateralism" – six-party talks with North Korea and the European Union as a go-between with Iran – without accepting direct talks with parties President Bush has termed "evil," Kemp says.
He adds, "if the multilateral approach is not going anywhere either, that really does lead you back to bilateral discussions."
Some appear to think snubbing adversaries was invented by the Bush White House, while the more adamant Bush advocates would have us believe the Clinton White House never had a foreign enemy it didn't cozy up to. But some say the seesaw of pragmatic engagement with adversaries balancing a moralistic refusal to talk has been teeter-tottering at least since the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution.
"There is a moralist streak in American foreign policy, this idea that you don't talk to bad people, that is not new," says Kemp, who served on the National Security Council in the Reagan White House.
Indeed President Reagan was famous for calling the Soviet Union "the evil empire" – but then embracing Mikhail Gorbachev, saying "I can work with this guy." Kemp says the Reagan administration was "initially standoffish" towards the Soviet Union and took years to receive a Soviet leader. But things changed, he adds, after the president was "won over by the leading pragmatists around him – those being Nancy Reagan and George Schulz."
For years it was taboo for US leaders to speak with the Palestinian Liberation Organization – so much so that Andrew Young lost his job as US ambassador to the United Nations for doing just that. Kemp remembered Alexander Haig's first Middle East trip as secretary of state, when Mr. Haig's insistence that he wouldn't stop in Damascus became the trip's major topic.
The seesaw tipped by the time Clinton took office when PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, having renounced the doctrine of Israel's destruction, was a repeat visitor to the White House and "official visits to Damascus were almost every hour on the hour," Kemp quips.
In a news conference Wednesday President Bush fielded questions about his refusal to directly engage with Kim Jong Il's regime, saying the Clinton administration's approach "just didn't work."
Clinton administration officials refute this. Ms. Albright said in a statement Wednesday that "through our policy of constructive engagement, the world was safer" because North Korea did not develop new nuclear weapons or proceed to a nuclear test. Former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry said it's a "lost cause" for the the US to try to deal with North Korea unless it agrees to one-on-one talks.
Bush emphasized Wednesday that his approach to North Korea is to rely on diplomacy. That suggests the debate over talking or not talking comes down to a definition of diplomacy. Administration hard-liners have argued against direct talks with the North because they say it would legitimize an abhorrent regime. But critics of the Bush approach say diplomacy is not only about dealing with allies.
Kurt Campbell, who served in both the White House and Pentagon under Clinton, says he would not "view diplomacy as a gift or as something we bestow on others, but [as] really designed for dealing with bad people on issues you care about."
Still, for others, the attraction of the Bush approach is not that it shuns talking, but that it offers talks in the context of broader bilateral negotiations – so that success or failure does not ride exclusively on American shoulders.
"The question is how do you rein in rogue regimes, and in the case of both North Korea and Iran the Bush administration has this exactly right," says Raymond Tanter, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who served under the first President Bush.
Mr. Tanter says the Clinton administration's engagement with North Korea did not prevent the North from cheating, and exposed the US to the full blame for that. "But if North Korea is cheating on five countries, that isolates them much more, it prevents them from blaming just the US," he adds, "and it makes them subject to the weight of the international community."