In its waning days, the Bush administration is showing new flexibility toward Iraq, Iran and North Korea — the countries it once called the "Axis of Evil." The administration says it would still include Iran and North Korea on the list, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week participated in talks including her North Korean counterpart, and she sent a top diplomat to Geneva last weekend for talks with Iran's nuclear negotiator.
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 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.
Rice's meeting with her North Korean counterpart angered her critics on the right.
"This is the Obama administration beginning six months early," said former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who is now with the American Enterprise Institute. He says we are witnessing the "intellectual collapse" of the Bush administration.
"The operationalization of the policy has been almost a flat contradiction of what the originally stated policy was," Bolton said. "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 — whether you look at the Middle East or Iran or North Korea or many other areas, it is entirely her policy."
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 the president's father on foreign policy, was asked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to reflect on the changes in administration policy when it comes to North Korea and Iran.
"The parallels are uncanny because we started out ... thinking the solution to the problem in both North Korea and Iran was regime change. And we have abandoned it in both cases," Scowcroft said. 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 is has.
On Iran, Scowcroft said it was a good idea to send the State Department's No. 3 official, William Burns, to nuclear talks last weekend, and he criticized Rice for being too dismissive of the meeting later.
"I would guess that within the administration, there has been a lot of deadlock. We backed away from regime change but not toward much of anything else," he said. "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."
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Carter's national security adviser, describes the U.S. handling of Iran as clumsy.
"I think the administration is divided," he said. "It has 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 of 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."
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.
The chief of the Israeli defense forces is in Washington this week. So, too, is a 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, Ahmad Samir al-Taki, says he isn't sensing any change in the U.S. attitude toward his country, even after Syria entered into indirect peace talks with Israel.
"I'm not seeing any sign of lessening the demonization process vis a vis Syria. Sanctions are every day released in a very non-constructive way," Taki said. He told a luncheon at the Brookings Institution that he is looking beyond the current administration — and trying to get a better feel for what might come next.