US diplomacy becomes more ... diplomatic

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.

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."

Of course, others within the administration take different foreign-policy approaches. Vice President Dick Cheney's recent broadside at Russia for what he called a retreat from democracy and the use of energy supplies to "blackmail" neighboring countries reflects the first Bush term's moral certitude, some observers say. It also suggests that the internal tensions between aggressive neoconservatives and more traditional internationalists, which have marked the Bush administration since at least 9/11, still exist.

Those who know the secretary put her squarely in the second camp.

"Condi Rice has always leaned ideologically closer to father Bush and the traditional internationalism of that presidency, than to the neoconservative internationalism of the first George W. Bush term," says Georgetown's Mr. Kupchan.

What Rice brings to the table is not only the assumption that she has the president's full backing - something predecessor Colin Powell couldn't assert - but also an ability to manage, if not actually resolve, the conflicting foreign-policy visions.

"You need a good cop and a bad cop to deal with" the international powers and bring them together, "and Secretary Rice is playing the good cop," says Raymond Tanter, who worked with Rice on the National Security Council of President George H.W. Bush.

On Iran, Hamas, and other international issues, UN Ambassador John Bolton - a Cheney ally - is "playing the bad cop, the tough guy, and that is buying time in the Congress," says Mr. Tanter. "In the meantime, Rice is working with the P-5 [the Security Council's five permanent members] plus Germany, where the name of the game is incrementalism."

Rice "took a lesson" from UN deliberations on Iraq, says Tanter, now president of the Iran Policy Committee, a group advocating regime change in Iran. But that has not changed American determination on Iran, he insists.

"She's seen that to maintain the unity you have to move slowly, but at the end of the road is the same objective," he says, "and that is for Iran to take an exit ramp from the road to the bomb."

One change with Rice at the helm of US foreign policy is that the State Department no longer takes a back seat to the Pentagon in foreign-policy hierarchy.

"After a time there in the doldrums, we feel like we have the wind back in our sails," says one State Department official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to comment on administration turf battles.

The renewed primacy of the State Department in US foreign policy does not mean that one side has won or that tensions within the administration have ended. Some experts say the same divisions that mark American domestic politics will continue to roil US foreign policy even after the Bush presidency.

"The general thinking out there is that our foreign policy right now is a direct byproduct of Bush and his advisers, and that once they are gone we will have a return to ... a policy based on a centrist coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans," says Kupchan.

But "the same factors dividing domestic camps are shaping foreign policy as well," he says. "I don't subscribe to this idea that the battle over foreign-policy visions will die out along with the Bush presidency."

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