For tough places, a softer US line

Washington takes more cooperative approach, perhaps driven by the magnitude of challenges.

As the post-Iraq-war era sets in, the Bush administration is approaching the world with a little less swagger and a little more open arms. The shift, for a White House characterized in the eyes of much of the world as the lone cowboy, can be seen in two key areas of concern: Iraq's reconstruction and North Korea's nuclear program.

In both cases, the change from going it alone to bringing in the world appears to be as much a wakeup to reality on the ground as a profound change of heart. President Bush "is exercising much more multilateral diplomacy than in the past, but I see that as a change that has been forced upon him by circumstances," says Jeswald Salacuse, a conflict-resolution expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School. "I'm not sure that had he had his preferences, he would have gone in this direction."

Still, indications of a new assessment of the international community's role in these issues are growing. First in Iraq: The US is expected to announce at a donors' conference on Iraq this week its acceptance of a new international assistance agency that will channel much of the world's financial aid into Iraq's reconstruction. The change from full US control of reconstruction monies suggests both how much other countries were reluctant to appear to be financing the US occupation of another country, but also how much the US needs international monetary assistance in Iraq.

Second, on North Korea: As he meets with Asian-Pacific leaders this week, President Bush now says he would agree to offer security assurances to North Korea in exchange for an end to its nuclear program - as long as the agreement was made among the neighboring countries now involved with the US in talks with Pyongyang.

Addressing the president's openness to a security accord with the North, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Bangkok Monday: "We want to discuss this with our partners. We are not going to go in, all guns blazing, say 'take it or leave it, this is it.' " She said the recently established six-country talks are "an opportunity to address with the North Koreans their security concerns, but most important, to address what the rest of the ... members of the six-party framework are concerned about."

On both issues, the Bush administration appears to be bumping into problems on the ground that don't fit its initial notions of how it would address world issues. While that kind of adjustment hits every presidency, experts say, it's more striking in the case of George Bush because he had appeared more willing to buck the world - even at the expense of mounting global disdain.

The Bush administration "appears to have been ideologically driven, and the more ideologically driven you are, the more likely you are to run into realities that require you to adjust, tack, and trim your sails," says Jim Walsh, an expert on international security at Harvard University's Kennedy School School of Government.

Part of what we are seeing is fallout from the ongoing battle among administration factions, Mr. Walsh says - with what he calls the "pragmatists" on the rise at the moment. "We did not hear any talk over the weekend of North Korea being a state that was trying to engage in nuclear blackmail, no statements about how Bush personally loathes Kim Jung Il... This effort was, of course, spearheaded by [Secretary of State] Colin Powell," says Walsh. "He changed it to base it on some form of security assurances."

To be sure, the president's message is not simply meant for the rest of the world, but is aimed at his domestic audience as well. Some suggest that it's his primary audience. They say he is being forced to shift his tone in response to an American public that polls indicate wants more international involvement in Iraq, and better relations with the world generally.

Some participants in the margins of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok, which ends Tuesday, note that countries like Japan and South Korea reacted coolly to Bush's talk of a regional security pact with North Korea. They echoed the belief that the president's remarks were primarily designed for domestic consumption.

"I don't know if this is a change of the heart, but it's a change in the head," says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration now with the Center for American Progress in Washington. "The president realizes an election is coming up, and he knows that if these problems are where they are today it's going to make things difficult."

For the administration, the shift on Iraq appears to be more striking - the one more driven by unwelcome but unavoidable realities on the ground. The administration has been pursuing a multilateral approach to the North Korea and Iran nuclear programs for months. But the prewar thinking on Iraq had been that American troops would be starting to leave by now, and Iraq oil money would quickly pay for a share of reconstruction.

"It represents ... a bit more sober realism of how hard the task of Iraq is," says Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center, a foreign-policy think tank in Washington. She also sees the new financial arrangement for donors to Iraq as the result of last week's hard bargaining in the UN Security Council for a new UN resolution on Iraq.

The past few days have witnessed an uptick in international commitments to helping out in Iraq. Japan pledged billions of dollars and perhaps even troops over coming years, and South Korea pledged additional soldiers at some point as well.

Still, Ms. Laipson says she's not sure the administration's new tone is going to result in huge dividends. Bush has "got the language of international cooperation, but he may not get other countries to really contribute that much. The the risks are seen as high," she says, "and some countries don't want to be seen as bailing Bush out of what they see as a misguided policy to begin with."

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