WASHINGTON July 21, 2008 -- When William Burns, the State Department's third-ranking diplomat, sat down across from Iran's nuclear negotiator this weekend, he did so despite previous demands by Washington that Tehran suspend nuclear enrichment before talks take place.
Later this week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet for the first time with her North Korean counterpart in what the State Department is calling an "informal meeting" of the six-party talks, a negotiating format that has drawn fire from hawks in the administration for engaging Pyongyang.
The State Department has also admitted it is considering establishing the first diplomatic office in Iran in nearly three decades. And an Iranian official disclosed last week that the two sides are considering resuming direct flights between the countries.
In its waning months in office, the Bush administration is perceived to be emptying the diplomatic toolbox in a final effort to make progress on key objectives, like eliminating the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs as well as handing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the next president.
The new efforts have both critics and supporters of the focus on diplomatic solutions wondering if the Bush administration is taking its foreign policy cues from the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, who has advocated broader engagement with America's enemies.
The new efforts are a significant departure from the policies pursued during President Bush's first term, which was marked by preemptive war and an assertive foreign policy that was chided by many at home and abroad as "cowboy diplomacy."
The seeds of today's diplomatic efforts, however, were sowed early in the administration's second term.
By 2005, unilateral efforts to coax Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear ambitions had failed. The United States was stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan as the situations there deteriorated. It became clear that America needed help from its traditional allies.
Rice, in her 2005 confirmation hearings, declared, "The time for diplomacy is now." Her first trip abroad was to court European allies who were estranged after disagreements over the decision to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Soon the United States established multilateral negotiations with North Korea involving its neighbors, and joined European efforts to persuade Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment, a key step towards developing nuclear weapons. The diplomatic overtures in the past week are a broadening of efforts to reach out to countries the U.S. once shunned as members of the "Axis of Evil."
The State Department rejected suggestions that the move amounted to capitulating to enemies who had dug in their heels and stalled negotiations for years.
"It is, in fact, a strong signal to the entire world that we have been very serious about this diplomacy and we will remain very serious about this diplomacy," Rice said on Friday of the meeting with Iran. Rice's spokesman dismissed the idea that the administration had changed its policy.
"We're trying to push what we see as an advantage. But the substance is the same," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last week. "It sends a signal, yes. Is it a change in policy? No."
"I would read it as is the United States looking for opportunities to advance diplomacy," he added. "And if we see an opportunity to do that within the confines of the principles of our policies, we're going to do it."
Obama had been criticized by the administration for saying he would talk with the leaders of Iran, North Korea and Cuba to further diplomacy.
"This debate, though, should not be about whether we talk to Iran. That is not the real issue," Rice said in an apparent jab at Obama during a speech last month to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "Diplomacy is not a synonym for talking. True diplomacy means structuring a set of incentives and disincentives to produce change in behavior."
Rice ignored a question on Friday as to whether the new approach was inspired by Obama's plans.
Graham Allison, a former senior official during the Reagan and Clinton administrations and now a professor at Harvard University, called the administration's shift "a flip flop into the reality zone."
"I think that what Bush is doing is quite consistent with what Obama had proposed some months ago, and for which the Bush administration had criticized him," he said. "It's more than ironic that someone who the administration wants to characterize as inexperienced and naive in foreign policy happens to have had a view about Iran, namely that you could talk to them, which ideologues in the administration then characterized as appeasement, which Bush is now adopting."
Obama welcomed the decision to meet with Iran, saying "Now that the United States is involved, it should stay involved with the full strength of our diplomacy. A united front with our friends and allies directly calling on the Iranians to stand down on their illicit nuclear program will maximize the international pressure we can bring to bear and will show the Iranian people that Iran's isolation is a function of its government's unwillingness to live up to its obligations."
The White House has also adopted a new tack with regard to troop levels in Iraq, one that also steps in the direction of Obama's call to withdraw troops as soon as possible.
On Friday the White House said it had agreed with the Iraqi government to an ambiguous "time horizon" for withdrawing troops. The move goes counter to the administration's refusal to apply what it called an "arbitrary timeline" for removing forces from Iraq.
Obama has called for troops to be withdrawn from Iraq over the course of 16 months.
But it remains to be seen how effective the new tactics will be.
Saturday's meeting with Iran yielded no positive response from Tehran on the issue of halting uranium enrichment. Rice told reporters that the United States would have to consider imposing new sanctions if Iran does not agree to suspend enrichment in two weeks.
Talks with North Korea, though they have been met with success in shutting down Pyongyang's plutonium reactor, have been repeatedly delayed and the most contentious issues have yet to be discussed, including North Korea's nuclear weapons stockpiles, which it so far has refused to hand over.