The 9/11 attacks remain the impetus behind the foreign policy of George W. Bush. But in an era of tight budgets and stretched US forces, testing even America's broad powers, the way the president carries out that foreign policy has had to change.
"The grand strategy remains the same," says Robert Lieber, professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington. "It's the tactics that have changed as the options on some of these big issues have narrowed."
As Mr. Bush sets off this week for meetings with other leaders at the G-8 summit in Russia, much is being made of how differently the White House is treating Iran and North Korea – two issues set to dominate the summit proceedings – compared with its approach to another perceived threat, Iraq, in the president's first term.
On Iran, Bush has deferred the diplomatic lead to the Europeans, instead using diplomacy itself to clinch the cooperation of a key player like Russia. On North Korea, the White House is counting on Pyongyang's own rash actions – such as last week's missile launches – to galvanize Asian powers, including China, into action that could lead the North back to negotiations on its nuclear weapons program.
In both cases, Bush is using the word "patience," and insisting that diplomacy takes time – an argument that was not often heard in his first term. While in both cases the president says none of his options have been taken off the table – a reference to the potential use of military force – administration officials and experts concur that a military response to the threats posed by either Iran or North Korea would be much more complicated than Iraq.
What this suggests is a president who has come to terms with the world as it is, and is likely to be for the foreseeable future, some analysts say, while adjusting to the realization of a less-dominant American power than what the policymakers of the first term anticipated.
"This is neither a world of America as Roman Empire, nor a world of eight or nine equal powers, but something in between. And the Bush White House is learning to deal with that hard reality," says John Hulsman, a foreign-policy expert whose new book, "Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World" comes out this fall.
Mr. Hulsman says the first Bush term was heavily influenced by the twin neoconservative visions of American primacy and rapid Middle East democratization to quell the threat of radical Islam. "Iraq demonstrated that neither vision could hold up," he says. "The minute they got to policy, the neocon idea of a unipolar world melted away."
Instead, the United States finds itself the leader in a world of rising and waning powers – powers that carry varying weight on key issues, but which in any case cannot simply be ignored. The Bush second-term approach demonstrates an understanding of that, Hulsman says.
"The US is clearly the chairman of the board, and no other power will be in a position to challenge that for some time into the future," he says. "But the US is still going to have to play a complex and nuanced game of working to win over key 'members of the board' on issues where they matter, while not alienating others."
Professor Lieber of Georgetown says Bush's foreign policy has matured in the second term – a trait he says often emerges in two-term presidencies. "If you look at Reagan, Clinton, and now Bush, you see that foreign-policy operations in the second term are often more adept and experienced," he says.
One factor in the Bush shift is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the manner in which the close Bush confidante has taken the helm of US foreign policy. "Rice is demonstrating more and more a certain degree of control over the foreign-policy process," says Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest, a Washington foreign-policy review. Pointing to the Iran and North Korea crises, he says, "That has led to less idealism and more realism, with the understanding that things aren't going to move simply by US will and determination."
But Lieber, author of the recently published "American Era," says current widespread analysis of a radically different Bush foreign policy in the second term – Time magazine calls it "the end of cowboy diplomacy" – is exaggerated and oversimplified. He says the label of a "unilateral" first-term foreign policy is overplayed, as is a supposed turning away from the "pillars" of the so-called Bush doctrine.
"There has been some stepping back," he says, "but I would also say there has not been any stepping down, and certainly not to the degree some of these commentaries suggest."
Lieber says it appears to some that one such pillar, preemption, has been given up, largely because "there are no good options for use of force" against North Korea or Iran. In the case of North Korea, the US faces the complication of its own forces in the region, and the large allied population centers that could be affected by any military conflict. And in terms of Iran, the US faces the reality of Iran's deep involvement in next-door neighbor Iraq.
As for democratization, the rough go in Iraq, as well as the Hamas victory in the Palestinian territories, has taken the shine off the idea of Middle East democratization.
"It's not that people prefer autocratic rulers, but there is a reassessment of the simplistic view that democratizing regimes are automatically more amenable to US interests," says Mr. Gvosdev. "To some extent we're seeing a larger place in the administration for being guided by interests rather than coming up with a grandiose doctrine yet again."
Still, he senses that Bush is already setting the stage for claiming a legacy of having improved the world, whether in Iraq – no matter how it turns out – or in new democracies such as Georgia in Eastern Europe. "We're going to hear that while Iraq may not have turned out exactly as we intended, we've still moved the goal posts forward," he says.
Yet the broad lines of US foreign policy are not likely to change radically after Bush, says Lieber, referring to the defining shift that 9/11 had on the US. "In a world where Osama bin Laden says his goal is to acquire nuclear weapons ... we can expect that whoever occupies the White House in January '09 will follow a grand strategy that looks rather like the Bush doctrine – though the tactics will vary and of course no one will call it that."