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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We're getting more signs that the Bush administration is shifting its approach to what it once called the axis of evil. That's the label President Bush once applied to Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The U.S. went to war with Iraq but it's increasing its contact with the other two.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent a top diplomat to multilateral talks with Iran's nuclear negotiator. And then this week Rice herself joined the six-party talks that included her counterpart from North Korea. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: There used to be bright lines in the Bush administration's approach to the world. Just a couple of months ago, President Bush compared talks with Iran to appeasement. And for many years the U.S. didn't want one-on-one talks with North Korea, accused of cheating on a past nuclear deal. Now the U.S. is trying to push forward a new nuclear deal with Pyongyang, and Secretary Rice met for the first time with her North Korean counterpart, angering her critics on the right.

Mr. JOHN BOLTON (American Enterprise Institute): This is the Obama administration beginning six months early.

KELEMEN: That's the former ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, now with the American Enterprise Institute. He says we're witnessing the intellectual collapse of the Bush administration.

Mr. BOLTON: The operationalization of the policy has been almost a flat contradiction of what the originally stated policy was. So that's what I mean by intellectual collapse. I think that has to do with the fact that Secretary Rice is the predominant, in fact probably the only, voice the president listens to on policy. And I think this is now, if you look at the Middle East or Iran or North Korea or many other areas, it's entirely her policy.

KELEMEN: While Bolton is critical of the State Department's latest moves, others in Washington's foreign policy establishment sound pleased by the new more pragmatic approach. Brent Scowcroft, who advised President Bush's father on foreign policy, was asked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to reflect on the changes in the administration's policy when it comes to both North Korea and Iran.

Mr. BRENT SCOWCROFT (Former National Security Advisor): The parallels are uncanny because we started out with both thinking the solution to the problem in both North Korea and Iran was regime change. And we have abandoned it in both cases.

KELEMEN: He said the Bush administration recognized it had to drop the threat of regime change in North Korea in order to get China to play the positive role that it has. On Iran, Scowcroft said it was a good idea to send the State Department's number three official, William Burns, to nuclear talks last weekend, and he criticized Secretary Rice for being too dismissive of the meeting later.

Mr. SCOWCROFT: I would guess within the administration there's been a lot of deadlock. We've backed away from regime change but not toward much of anything else. And I think one of the encouraging signs of Bill Burns going on this was a movement in the way of going the way we went in North Korea.

KELEMEN: Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Carter's national security adviser, describes the U.S. handling of Iran as clumsy.

Mr. ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI (Former National Security Adviser): I think the administration is divided. It has a little time left, there is still a great deal of emotional involvement on the part of the top decision makers in the idea that they ought to somehow resolve it before they leave office, and all that complicates the picture in a way that doesn't induce the American approach to be as consistent and as eventually constructive as it gradually became in the North Korean case.

KELEMEN: Brzezinski says one of the problems is that the Bush administration is keeping the military option on the table and he says that could legitimize the use of force or perhaps tempt Israel to act against Iran. Scowcroft and Brzezinski both oppose attacking Iran and offer this advice to Israel.

Mr. SCOWCROFT: Calm down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Don't do it.

KELEMEN: The chief of the Israeli defense forces is in Washington this week. So too is the delegation from Syria, which doesn't seem to be benefiting from the softening tone of the Bush administration's foreign policy. The State Department called off a meeting with the group, and one member of it, Ahmed Zamir Altaki(ph), says he's not sensing any change in the U.S. attitude toward his country, even after Syria entered into indirect peace talks with Israel.

Mr. AHMED ZAMIR ALTAKI (Syrian Delegate): I'm not seeing any sign of lessening the demonizing process with Syria. Sanctions are every day released in a very non-constructive way.

KELEMEN: Altaki told a luncheon at the Brookings Institution that he's looking beyond the current administration and trying to get a better feel for what might come next.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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