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US diplomacy becomes more ... diplomatic

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 2006


When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice faced facts last week about international sentiment on Iran - shelving US demands for quick, tough action and signing on to another round of European incentives to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions - it was a move right out of the Bush playbook.

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The first President Bush's diplomatic playbook, that is.

Confronted with less maneuverability in the wake of Iraq and buffeted by newly assertive forces abroad, US diplomacy under Secretary Rice is proving to be more patient and multilateral than in the first Bush term. To the consternation of some conservatives, especially in Congress, American diplomacy is much less supremacist, with Rice stressing the new importance of holding together like-minded partners with similar values.

Besides Iran, evidence of this new reality - and Rice's approach to operating within it - can be found in several events of last week. Among them:

On Hamas, Rice signed on to a test period of resumed aid to Hamas-governed Palestinians, bowing to European pressure and rising concerns of a humanitarian crisis in the territories. And, at least temporarily, the pro-Israel congressional lobby stood down.

On China, the Bush administration declined to label China a "currency manipulator" despite its "extreme dissatisfaction" with Beijing's baby-step efforts to tame a high-flying yuan. The decision drew barbs from congressional Democrats and Republicans alike, who say China's strong currency hurts US manufacturing, but it put off any confrontation with Beijing over the issue.

"The Bush administration in the second term has been much more mindful of the need to engage in diplomacy and cognizant of the fact that it needs to give ground to get others on board," says Charles Kupchan, a US foreign-policy expert at Georgetown University here.

"It's not a strategic or ideological about-face, but a shift born almost exclusively of necessity," he adds. "After the difficulties of Iraq, we see it on Hamas, we see it on Iran, and we've seen a reemphasis on the need for European strength and unity."

A rising challenge for the US is newly assertive players abroad, including Russia and China, but also Iran, Hamas, and oil-rich Venezuela, that like to publicly poke at the US.

Rice's adaptations have led some to worry that the administration is pursuing coalition-building as if it were an end in itself.

"If your goal is to be liked, then you're not going to do very much," says Danielle Pletka, a foreign-policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that has generally had close ties to the administration.

Zeroing in on the US decision to join European countries in offering Iran incentives to drop uranium enrichment, Ms. Pletka says, "I'm all for improving ties with allies, but one has to ask how going along on this moves the ball forward. Someone has to remember," she adds, "that we're not about getting better cooperation with the French and the Germans - that's not the objective. What we're about is getting the Iranian nuclear program derailed."