CARTAGENA, Colombia (AP) — President Barack Obama's willingness to engage with America's adversaries comes with promise and peril, a reality hammered home by signs of progress in nuclear talks with Iran and a setback in North Korea's provocative rocket launch.
In Colombia, where Obama is attending a summit with Latin American leaders, the president has been confronted by the stubbornly stalled U.S.-Cuba relationship, despite his offer of a "new beginning" with the communist nation.
The convergence of events focused fresh attention on a foreign policy strategy that puts a premium on keeping the door open for diplomacy, even with countries the U.S. considers "bad actors."
Obama administration officials say the strategy has improved the U.S. standing in the world by showing that America is more willing to look outward, 10 years since President George W. Bush branded Iran, Iraq and North Korea as members of an "axis of evil." White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes credited U.S. engagement with Iran and North Korea with allowing the U.S. to rally international support for stronger penalties when those nations proved to be defiant.
But the president's critics say his open engagement policy is naïve and weak.
The criticism came from Obama's fellow Democrats during the 2008 election, including from campaign rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's secretary of state. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has used a similar line of attack to go after Obama's foreign policy in this year's presidential race.
Almost immediately after North Korea's failed rocket launch Thursday, Romney accused Obama of trying to appease the reclusive communist country by dangling a food aid deal "that proved to be as naïve as it was short-lived."
Romney has accused Obama of engaging in a policy of appeasement with Cuba, and giving the communist-run government "gifts" when he lifted restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba. Romney has said that if he were negotiating with Cuba as president, he would want to know what he was going to get in return before making any concessions.
Obama did lay out his conditions for re-engagement with Cuba when he made his call for a "new beginning" during the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. A new approach would require Cuba to release political prisoners and embrace other democratic and economic freedoms, he said.
It was the most significant U.S. gesture in decades toward opening a dialogue with Cuba and was welcomed at first by the island's leaders. Raul Castro responded to Obama within hours, saying he was willing to discuss "everything" with the U.S. and admitted that his country "could be wrong."
But that's about as far as Obama got in his quest for a new beginning.
Administration officials say Cuba proved to be an unwilling partner that hasn't followed through on promise changes. Any hope of reconciliation came to a halt after a U.S. government contractor was sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison for spiriting communications equipment onto the island to help Cuba's small Jewish community improve Internet access.
U.S. officials say no thaw can occur while Alan Gross is behind bars.
In Colombia, Obama has faced fresh pressure to engage with Cuba.
At the insistence of the U.S., Cuba was the only country in the Western Hemisphere not invited to the summit. Ecuador's president boycotted the meeting in protest. Other Latin American leaders, increasingly frustrated with the U.S. stand, say this will be the last Summit of the Americas unless Cuba is allowed to participate in the future.
Regional pressure was likely to do little to change Obama's position, especially in light of domestic political concerns in an election year. Cuban-Americans make up a small, but deeply committed voting bloc in Florida, and can swing tight races in the vital state.
While the views of Cuban-Americans on the half-century U.S. economic embargo on the island are shifting, Obama probably doesn't want to upset those who favor a hard line ahead of the election.
Despite the lack of progress from offering to engage with both Cuba and North Korea, the president has shown little willingness to walk away from diplomacy.
The U.S. and five other world partners held talks with Iran this weekend on the Islamic republic's disputed nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes. While previous negotiations have ended in a stalemate, diplomats involved in the latest round of talks suggested there had been notable progress. All sides will be back at the negotiating table next month.
Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, questioned what critics of the engagement policies would prefer as an alternative.
"Ignoring challenges doesn't make them go away," he said.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC .