The rise of Rice and a new 'realism'

The Bush administration's response to events in Lebanon and Iran show signs of a more cooperative approach to the world.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

She's in the news for her sartorial sensations and for a so-categorically-denied-it-sounded-like-yes response to speculation she'll run for president in 2008.

In Condoleezza Rice's early weeks as secretary of State, she is racking up air miles at a near record pace and overseeing a Bush foreign policy that appears to be shifting lately in her direction. Some expert observers are calling it a shift to "realism" - of the kind Ms. Rice promoted in the early days of the Bush presidency, when she was national security adviser. Some signs:

• After months of refusal, the US is now joining three European Union countries in offering incentives to Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

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• In Lebanon, the US has remained focused on demands for Syria's withdrawal while avoiding blunt criticism of Hizbullah's role there. That is widely seen as a "realistic" approach, given the Islamist organization's wide appeal in the country.

Rice is also marking her tenure early with a kind of suitcase diplomacy: She's in Asia this week, with stops in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, before turning to China, South Korea, and Japan, to take up the thorny issues of North Korea and China-Taiwan relations. The whirlwind trip follows a stop in Mexico last week to set up Bush's summit with North American leaders set for next Wednesday, and earlier fence-mending forays to Europe - one with a detour to the Middle East.

"It was sometimes hard to get Colin Powell on a plane, but if things hold up it looks like it's going to be hard to keep Condoleezza Rice off of a plane," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs, now at George Washington University's Eliott School of International Affairs. "That alone suggests there's going to be a different style to her secretaryship."

In some respects, the shifts in Bush foreign policy reflect a common readjustment that often takes places in the segue into a second term. "Clearly any administration after a first term picks up more experience, and you tend to see more skillful and sensible diplomacy," says Robert Lieber, a foreign-policy expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "You saw that in the Clinton administration between the first and second terms as well."

At the same time, it makes "perfect sense" to focus on Syria in the case of Lebanon, Mr. Lieber adds, because Syria is "causing problems with three of its neighbors" - Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel - that are in turn causing problems for the US and the international community.

But the cooperative stance the US is taking with partners - particularly the former bête noire France on Syria - is also reflective of other factors beyond the Bush administration, he says. "Now that the November election is behind us, countries that would have preferred John Kerry in the White House are being realistic themselves and coming to terms with this administration," Lieber says. "It's also important to realize that the fight over Iraq is over, and the world has moved on to what to do about post-Saddam Iraq."

And whereas Rice took a backseat and often criticized role in the first term's war years dominated by Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, the new reality - one that includes an emphasis on putting America in a positive light on the world stage - is one that fits the performance-oriented Rice.

Friends note that Rice, who has been giving piano recitals since she was a little girl (and who sometimes annoys interlocutors with a schoolmarmish lecturing that is reflective of the academic she is) is more in her element in the spotlight than when she was the behind-the-scenes presidential adviser. The high-heeled black boots she wore in Germany and the wowing red gown she stole the show with at Washington's annual Gridiron dinner - as well as promises to State Department employees to treat them some day to a recital - are all suggestions of that.

Of course, some question whether the administration is really moving in a new direction in dealing with the world. Danielle Pletka, a foreign-policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute - a Washington think tank that supplied the first Bush term with several key policymakers - says the approach may have changed, but policy has not. "There was consensus within the administration that burning bridges with allies without purpose was extremely self-defeating for the US," she says. "When you're in a position of setting the agenda on the world stage, as the US clearly is, you have to be a bit more careful about the gratuitous cracks about allies or disliking the Europeans on principle."

At the same time, she finds that no big policy shifts have flowed from the tonal adjustment. "All we've really seen," she says, "is that the many decisions the US takes on a whole variety of issues are being articulated quietly and in greater consultation with our allies." President Bush did open the door a crack recently to Hizbullah participating in Lebanese politics, saying it is up to the Islamic group to demonstrate by its actions that it's no longer a terrorist organization. Ms. Pletka says that does not change the US designation of Hizbullah as a terrorist group. On Iran, she says that by agreeing to work with the Europeans the US "gave up nothing for not much."

Others agree that evidence of a new tack in foreign policy is mixed - but see the issue from a different perspective. Mr. Inderfurth points, for example, to the nomination of unilateralist conservative John Bolton as US ambassador to the UN, and the withdrawal last week of the US from the additional protocol to the Vienna Convention that deals with international death-penalty cases. "Those two acts are off message with the new face the administration has said it wants to present to the international community," he says. "So you have to wonder if this really is a new era of cooperation in our diplomacy," Inderfurth says, "or a continuity with the idea of American exceptionalism."

Even some Republicans were alarmed by what they saw as the messianic direction the Bush foreign policy seemed to be taking, in the name of democracy's universal spread and at the behest of zealous neoconservatives, in the initial months after the president's reelection.

As editors Robert Ellsworth and Dimitri Simes say in a recent editorial in The National Interest, a conservative policy review recently taken over by the Nixon Center, "Continuing to follow the prescriptions of the neoconservative faction of the Republican Party may damage President Bush's legacy, imperil the country's fiscal stability, and complicate America's ability to exercise global leadership."

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