Axis of hope: Welcome to the post-Bush era

George Bush's old enemies could well become Barack Obama's new friends as diplomatic relations thaw. David Randall and Chris Buckley report

Sunday 18 January 2009 01:00

Nations that have traditionally been in adversarial relationship with the United States began preparing for the post-Bush era this weekend, led by North Korea. The secretive member of the soon-to-be-former president's "axis of evil" put down a startling diplomatic marker by letting it be known that it had enough weaponised plutonium for four or five nuclear bombs, while at the same time declaring that it was prepared to become "intimate friends" with the United States.

In South America, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said that he expects president-elect Barack Obama will meet the leaders of Venezuela and Bolivia, expressing hope the new US government will mend fences with the South American leftists who often clashed with the Bush administration. Mr da Silva raised the possibility of easing conflict with Washington during a meeting with the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, a day after the top US envoy in Caracas also said Washington would seek increased co-operation.

Mr da Silva said: "I see the fact that the American public voted in a black man as president... as an extraordinary sign, and I think that Obama must transfer this gesture of the American people into a sign of transcendence of American policy towards Latin America, respecting our sovereignty, our democracies." Mr Chavez and Evo Morales, the Bolivian President, have had tense relations with President George Bush's government, and both expelled US diplomats last year. There are also widespread expectations of a rapprochement between the US and Cuba, with Raul Castro offering to discuss relations with Washington.

In the Middle East, Syrian officials have said privately they expect an Obama White House to be more engaged, and less confrontational. And, in Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said: "We hope the new US government can fulfil its people's demand to distance itself from the present statesman's wrong approaches"; while a close aide to the Ayatollah Khamenei has said, more emolliently: "There is a capacity for the improvement of ties between America and Iran if Obama pursues his campaign promises, including not confronting other countries as Bush did."

The most cautious words yesterday came from Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister. He praised Mr Obama as "sincere and open", but said Moscow needed to see how he turned out. Relations between Washington and Moscow have hit a post-Cold War low amid rows over missile defence, Nato enlargement, Kosovan independence and Russia's war with Georgia.

Mr Putin said that Russia was ready to co-operate with the United States on a range of international issues, though he cautioned against excessive optimism. "Obama looks like a sincere and open man and this of course attracts people," he said at an overnight meeting with editors of leading German newspapers during a visit to Dresden. But he also said: "I am deeply convinced that the deepest disappointments come from excessive hopes. We need to see what happens in practice."

Moscow had, Mr Putin said, noted positive signals from the Obama camp on US plans to build an anti-missile system – something Moscow says threatens its security. "This concerns missile defence: we have heard that it may not be that badly needed," Mr Putin told the German editors. "We also heard that the security of countries like Ukraine and Georgia can be ensured through other means and there is no need to immediately grant them Nato membership."

Russia has strongly opposed Washington's plans to shepherd former Soviet states into the Western military alliance. Mr Putin said that Russia and the US could co-operate in curbing the arms race, as well as on the Middle East, Iran and the global economic crisis. But he added that he was not impressed by European euphoria over Obama. "The fact that some European states were inspired by Obama shows that Europeans recently saw many negative things in US policy," he said.

But the most arresting reaction to the change of regime in Washington came from the normally reclusive state of North Korea, which this weekend became confusingly garrulous. On the one hand, senior government officials confided both their nuclear weapon status and hopes for dialogue with Washington to a visiting American expert, Selig Harrison. On the other, the army sent out aggressive signals aimed at South Korea, with whom relations have deteriorated since President Lee Myung-bak came to office last year on a promise to get tough on his Communist neighbour after 10 years of liberal leaders' efforts to engage Pyongyang.

Mr Harrison said yesterday that he talked to four North Korean officials, including Li Gun, the foreign ministry official in charge of relations with the US. Mr Harrison said he was told "North Korea wants friendly relations with the United States", and that if the Obama administration makes a political decision for improved relations, then "the DPRK and the United States can become intimate friends". Mr Harrison quoted Mr Li as saying that Pyongyang was not in a position to say when it might commit itself to nuclear disarmament. He said the North Korean official told him that they had "already weaponised 30.8kg of plutonium" that was listed as part of the North's nuclear declaration – an amount he understood could make four to five weapons – adding that they had said "the weapons cannot be inspected".

Separately, he said, he got "flat denials" about claims that North Korea has sought to enrich uranium, and said he could not vouch for the credibility of the weaponisation claims, which would make negotiations more difficult. North Korea has delayed implementing a nuclear disarmament agreement struck at six-party talks in Beijing, unwilling to accept verification rules demanded by the other countries in the talks and claiming they have not abided by their aid vows.

The officials provided no firm information about the health of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, Mr Harrison said, but added that Mr Kim seemed to be "not working as he did before on a full-time schedule".

Meanwhile, not everywhere welcomes the end of the Bush years. George W was the first US president to visit the former closed Communist state of Albania, and is still accorded hero status in a country that now embraces all things Western. Its people reserve special affection for the United States, which they credit not only with ending their Cold War isolation but also with leading Nato in 1999 to rescue the Albanians of neighbouring Kosovo from "ethnic cleansing" by Serbia.

In Fushe-Kruje, Festim Cela, the owner of the little town's George W Bush Café, said: "I wish he had another mandate." That may well be the feelings of the man himself. In his final radio address, broadcast yesterday, the US President said: "I will depart office proud of my administration's record."

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