For a group of leaders known for speaking of the world in terms of black and white, the Bush administration is lately demonstrating an ability to deal with the world in more nuanced shades of gray.
In both the Iraq and North Korea crises, the America of George W. Bush is suddenly placing much more stock in diplomacy and cooperative international approaches than the hawkish rhetoric of a few months ago suggested would be the case. For some observers, it is the triumph at least at the moment of pragmatism over ideology.
"If you went strictly by the president's State of the Union address [where Bush unveiled the 'axis of evil'] and the National Security Strategy [which last month laid out a doctrine of preventive military action for the post-9/11 world], you'd assume we'd be bombing North Korea right now," says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant Defense secretary in the Reagan administration. "But it's the realism of [Secretary of State Colin] Powell that the president has come around to. It's an acknowledgment that in the real world, you have to deal with the shades of gray."
The Bush White House quickly opted to respond diplomatically when presented with the reality that one member of the "axis of evil" North Korea probably already has nuclear weapons, and is pursuing more. Rather than confront North Korea alone, the administration is emphasizing a full-court press with regional allies.
James Kelly, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in Seoul Saturday that the United States is not confronting North Korea with any deadlines right now for terminating its weapons programs. Those programs have effectively nullified a 1994 arms-control accord.
At the United Nations, an administration led by a resurgent Secretary of State Powell is doggedly pursuing international backing for action against UN-resolution-busting Iraq.
As early as today, the US could formally submit to the UN Security Council a resolution that still suggests Iraq faces "consequences" if it does not abide by a tough new weapons inspection regime. But the resolution will not authorize the use of force in the case of Iraq's failure to comply, diplomatic sources say, and the US would apparently be committed to returning to "consult" with the Security Council before taking military action.
These two cases are highlighting a remarkable contrast between the image of an administration proudly proclaiming its willingness to go it alone and the reality of painstaking and time-consuming diplomacy. What explains the change, analysts say, are three key factors: a reining-in of conservative ideologues in the administration by global realities, a war on terrorism that requires international cooperation to make meaningful progress, and the moderating influences of the American public.
"The instinct of the neoconservative ideologues, especially in [Vice President Dick Cheney's] office and at the Pentagon, is not to care what the world thinks because we are so strong," says Joseph Montville, an expert in preventive diplomacy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But the reemergence of Al Qaeda that we're seeing in places as widespread as the Persian Gulf and Indonesia is a reminder that we can't fight this war alone."
Referring to last week's bombing in Bali, Indonesia, he adds, "The violence is a challenge to international security that demands a much more subtle and nuanced engagement with the world than the one we've been trumpeting."
The signs of an America more anchored in the international community are prompting a sigh of relief from various corners of the world. "A more diversified response from the US to the world's security challenges is heartily welcomed, particularly in Europe," says Steven Everts, a specialist in transatlantic relations at the Centre for European Reform in London.
Bush's coining of the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address referring to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea worried many observers that the shock of 9/11 was prompting the US to adopt a uniformly antagonistic, even militaristic approach to global challengers. But the North Korean case suggests the administration is differentiating among the offenders, as do indications that the US is quietly pressuring friends over sales to Iran of sensitive equipment and materials.
Just Friday, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, generally placed on the A-list of administration conservative ideologues, said in a Washington speech that "we don't have a one-size-fits-all approach to all three" members of the "axis of evil."
Another key factor in the "graying" of the administration's approach is the American electorate. Polls consistently show a US populace that is wary of a go-it-alone America.
Americans also seem to worry that the US military can be stretched too thin by taking on too much of the world at once. And while they support the war on terror or perhaps because they do they worry about the impact of antagonizing Muslims, who make up more than one-fifth of the world's population.
All this is influencing the administration, analysts say. "A lot of things are going on to mess up the plans of [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and Cheney," says Mr. Montville, singling out two poster boys of the administration's conservative faction.
Adds Mr. Korb, now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, "There are a lot of people in this administration who want to be a lot more forward-leaning with the world, but Bush is a good politician. That puts a dose of reality in the mix, and the president pulls back even if it means annoying the forward-leaners."