WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, entering the home stretch of a two-term presidency, is now making foreign-policy decisions that it would have never entertained at its outset.
The recent accord reached with North Korea on dismantling its nuclear program and the decision to sit across a table from Iran to talk about Iraq's security are two of the highest profile examples.
And this weekend, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels again to Israel and the Palestinian territories as the US signals a willingness to engage at least to a certain extent in a new Palestinian unity government, which includes the militant Islamist group Hamas that the US and Israel consider a terrorist organization.
"First we decided to talk to our allies, and now we've decided we're going to talk to our enemies," says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert at Georgetown University in Washington, describing what he calls the "shift to diplomacy" that began at the outset of the second Bush term.
Has the administration forsaken its vision of America's aggressive role in the world? Is it the "climb down" that former administration hard-liner John Bolton says it is?
Or, as some officials at the State Department and elsewhere insist, is the administration simply harvesting the produce of its long-tilled soil?
The Bush administration is tailoring its policies to better fit international realities, most analysts say, more than the world has fallen in line behind an "our-way-or-the-highway" America. That shift, they add, will probably color foreign-policy decisions through 2008.
"I doubt there's been a fundamental reordering of the president's worldview, but we are seeing a tactical change in policy primarily to see if we can get some support in Iraq – and that is setting the tone for the remainder of this presidency," says Kim Holmes, a former Bush administration assistant secretary of State.
Others say the shift is more than tactical. "We're seeing a dramatic change in this president's foreign policy, and though the administration has tried to soft-pedal it so it doesn't look like they've gone in reverse, they clearly have," says Mr. Kupchan.
Central to the changing foreign-policy posture are the changes in the administration, most recently the selection of Robert Gates as secretary of Defense to replace Donald Rumsfeld, a stalwart of the Bush administration's initial unilateralist approach to the world.
That redirection started with the arrival of Ms. Rice at the helm of the State Department in January 2005. But it has been accelerated, experts say, with the arrival of Mr. Gates and the ebbing influence of Vice President Dick Cheney. Gates is seen as a traditional Republican internationalist cut from the cloth of George H.W. Bush.
"Gates replaces a secretary of Defense who was out of touch with what was happening on the ground and with the direction the administration seems to want to go in," says Thomas Henriksen, an expert in US foreign policy at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.
But some observers say the "old" Bush foreign policy may merely be dormant. They point out that Elliot Abrams, the national security adviser who pushed an aggressive democracy-building agenda and who remains influential on Middle East policy, was critical of the North Korea accord. Some also say that he has sought to undermine engagement with the Palestinians.
Still, Mr. Henriksen says, it's more circumstance than personality that will determine what Bush can accomplish in the remainder of his term. "It's the predicament of Iraq that is largely responsible for the changing approach to foreign policy, and likewise it is Iraq that to a great extent will determine what Bush can do."
The prime example may be Iran.
The administration may have maintained its position toward Iran – no talks until they cease nuclear activity that could lead to a bomb – if not for needing help in Iraq, analysts say.
"The position staked out on Iran initially was so strong, but now there is this effort to batten down the hatches on other issues so we can focus in Iraq," says Dr. Holmes, now director of foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Against seemingly prohibitive odds, Rice has staked out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an area ready for intense US diplomacy. But even in that realm, experts see external factors – more than a conviction that conditions are ripe for a breakthrough – driving her efforts.
Kupchan says that his "cynical" view is that the administration is using Rice's foray into the conflict to make gains elsewhere.
"This is like a bone thrown to ... [those] who hold the position that addressing this issue is one of the keys to making progress in Iraq," he says, "but it is also directed at the Sunni states in the region [that] we would like to bring on board to help out more in Iraq."
Few experts see any major foreign-policy advances ahead – with the caveat that Iran will be an unpredictable focus that could simply fall into the lap of the next administration – or suddenly jerk back toward confrontation.
The administration "may be able to smooth down the edges [with Iran] a bit, but it would take working out a modus operandi with Iran to really constitute an end-of-term breakthrough," says Henriksen.
Speaking from the vantage point of one who has administration experience, Holmes says he holds out little hope that "a policy of two directions" – isolating at the same time that it is reaching out to antagonists – can work for long.
"I'm not very optimistic it will get us very far," he says, "but the prevailing thought is that it is worth a try."