By HELENE COOPER
WASHINGTON — When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets her North Korean counterpart, Pak Ui-chun, in Singapore this week, it will be the first high-level meeting between Washington and the North since 2004, when Ms. Rice’s predecessor, Colin L. Powell, met with his North Korean counterpart. It will be the third meeting since Madeleine K. Albright visited North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, during the waning months of the Clinton administration.
After a weekend in which the Bush administration sent a top State Department official to a meeting in Geneva with an Iranian official, the North Korea meeting may well amount to last rites for the “axis of evil,” the one that President Bush said in 2002 was “arming to threaten the peace of the world.”
The Bush administration began long ago to step down from its vow not to talk to America’s foes. But its recent concessions to Iran and North Korea — and to Iraq, another charter member of the axis — have further muddled the old message.
Mr. Bush has now agreed, in principle, to the idea of a timetable for troop withdrawals from Iraq, something he has long derided as dangerous.
The State Department sent Under Secretary of State William J. Burns to talk to Iranian and European officials in Geneva, despite having said it would enter such talks only if Tehran suspended its enrichment of uranium, which Iran has not done.
And now, Ms. Rice will meet with Mr. Pak to finalize a phase in a denuclearization agreement less than two years after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon.
The White House maintained on Monday that nothing had changed. When pressed by a reporter on whether Mr. Bush still believed that North Korea and Iran were part of an axis of evil, Dana M. Perino, the White House press secretary, said they were.
“I think that until they give up their nuclear weapons programs completely and verifiably, I think that we would keep them in the same category,” Ms. Perino said.
And Ms. Rice herself, two days after the Geneva talks on Iran, described them as disappointing.
“We expected to hear an answer from the Iranians, but as has been the case so many times with the Iranians, what came through was not serious,” she said aboard her flight to Abu Dhabi for talks before heading to Singapore.
She said that if Iran did not respond in the next two weeks to an offer of incentives, the United States and other major powers would go back to the United Nations Security Council for additional sanctions against Tehran.
America’s European allies and even a few members of the Bush administration have been struck by what they call a zigzag.
A senior administration official described the Iran policy as “erratic,” while a European diplomat said, “It does seem a bit schizophrenic.”
Abbas Milani, an Iran expert at Stanford University who has advised the Bush administration, echoed the sentiment. “I don’t understand what they’re doing,” Mr. Milani said. Ms. Rice’s “provocative acts and words” on Monday could derail any chance that Iran’s leaders might reward the Bush concession on talks by suspending uranium enrichment, he said.
Some foreign policy experts said the multiplying concessions were to be expected in the waning months of any administration. The Reagan administration, for instance, began formal talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1988 during its last months in office, and President Clinton sent Ms. Albright to Pyongyang in late 2000, less than three months before he left office.
But the Bush administration’s concessions are particularly noteworthy because Mr. Bush and his deputies went to great lengths to propound an intellectual and moral doctrine that eschewed talking to foes; Mr. Bush compared such outreach to appeasement just two months ago before the Israeli Parliament.
Some national security hawks have been sharply critical of the latest moves toward Iran and North Korea.
“The metaphor to look at is intellectual collapse,” said John R. Bolton, the Bush administration’s former ambassador to the United Nations. “It’s not even a carefully staged retreat. Instead, it’s just a sign to the Iranians that toward the end of the administration, they’re desperate to sign deals.”
European officials say they have privately been urging the administration for several years now to engage Iran on the nuclear issue.
But some European diplomats questioned the timing of the decision to send Mr. Burns to the Geneva meeting. They said they had little hope that Iranian officials — known for their ability to draw out negotiations for as long as they can — would give the departing Bush administration the concession it was seeking and suspend uranium enrichment. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic rules.
The furthest Iran will go this year, the diplomats said, is likely to be a “freeze for freeze” proposal, in which it would agree not to enrich uranium beyond current levels, in return for a freeze on sanctions.
But the United States has said repeatedly that it will not accept such a proposal and seeks complete suspension of uranium enrichment.
For the Bush administration to accept the freeze-for-freeze proposal that is currently being floated, European and American diplomats said, would require yet another major concession.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Published: July 22, 2008
Correction: July 23, 2008
A news analysis article on Tuesday about the Bush administration’s diplomacy with Iran and North Korea misstated the history of high-level meetings between American and North Korean officials. While the meeting this week between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun reflects a new willingness by President Bush to talk with countries he has called part of the “axis of evil,” it is not the first such meeting since 2000, when then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright of the Clinton administration visited Pyongyang. Ms. Rice’s predecessor, Colin L. Powell, met twice with his North Korean counterpart, in 2002 and 2004.
Source: NewYork Times