A few days before he left on his eight-country world tour, Barack Obama wanted to discuss the trip with an old contact in Washington: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Obama's phone call was in part a courtesy, but over three years of occasional phone conversations, the two have quietly discussed everything from foreign aid to the Middle East and nuclear proliferation. Obama and Rice have come to have a certain respect for each other, says an Obama aide familiar with their conversations, because both take an intellectual, sober view of foreign affairs. "They've had good exchanges," the aide says. "Does he treat her as someone whom he has respect for? Absolutely. Does he listen to her on occasion? Absolutely."
The little-known Rice-Obama link is just the latest surprise in a summer of unexpected shifts in American foreign policy. Washington has dramatically changed course overseas, agreeing to diplomatic concessions it once derided as softheaded and dangerous--including the possibility of a phased withdrawal from Iraq. The White House has embraced a more active approach to Arab-Israeli diplomacy that it long shunned and has boosted support for Pakistan's government in deference to State Department diplomats, a strategy that involves a renewed effort to capture Osama bin Laden. The shifts amount to an unmistakable effort to clean up President Bush's foreign policy legacy before he exits the stage. "This is bold strategic diplomacy," says former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein, "with an eye to the history books."
The Administration's move away from saber-rattling is most evident with North Korea and Iran, two charter members of Bush's "axis of evil" that the Administration had long sought to isolate. In late June, U.S. negotiator Chris Hill agreed to remove North Korea from Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism in return for an as-yet-unverified declaration of the components of Pyongyang's nuclear program and the disabling of a key reactor. Bush cleared the way for Rice's top diplomat, William Burns, to break with a long-standing policy and meet face to face with the Iranians in Geneva on July 19. Rice says in public that these moves are the result of years of diplomacy, but a senior State Department official privately admits they are part of an effort to "push this thing as far as it can go" in the last six months of the Bush Administration.
Such moves signal the latest triumph of realism over ideology--and a victory for Rice and her diplomatic team over the neoconservatives led by Vice President Dick Cheney. Since Rice took the helm at State in 2005, she has steadily consolidated her authority over foreign policy. If her clout isn't absolute, it is approaching the veto-proof swat that Cheney enjoyed as the secret vicar of national security in 2002 and 2003.
Meanwhile, Bush's cleanup campaign is scrambling the assumptions of both Obama and John McCain. Bush's endorsement on July 18 of a "horizon" for withdrawal from Iraq has isolated McCain, who once said he favored a 100-year presence there. And so he backpedaled, calling a 16-month withdrawal plan supported by Iraq's Prime Minister a "pretty good" timetable. Bush's new tactics may complicate the calculations of Obama as well. Even a symbolic troop drawdown in Iraq before the election could depress antiwar sentiment among Obama's most loyal voters. Obama knows that as troops are withdrawn, Bush's approval ratings will rise--giving Republicans up and down the ballot a possible boost. That bump will be far larger if bin Laden is captured or killed.
But for now, both candidates are clapping, if sometimes with one hand. Obama and his aides have said Hill's efforts in North Korea offer a model for dealing with other rogue regimes, and on his way back from Europe, Obama backed the Bush overture to Tehran, telling Reuters "the Iranians should take that gesture seriously." When he visited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on July 23, Obama even endorsed Bush and Rice's three-track approach for an accelerated Arab-Israeli peace process and pledged to continue it if elected. McCain has also endorsed the Bush diplomatic moves, while stressing that they are the result of strategies that Obama opposed earlier.
No one expects Rice's diplomatic surge to work in every case--or even to produce visible results before the year's end--but the last-minute moves are already changing the landscape the next President will inherit. As for Rice, friends say she expects to return to Stanford next January no matter who wins the election. It may prove bittersweet to watch as a new President gets credit for policies she and Bush have promoted, but that is the price of embracing diplomacy so late in the game. At least, says the Obama aide, she can expect the phone calls to continue.