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JOAN VENNOCHI

Bush's baby steps

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION is finally talking to adversaries, instead of simply bellowing at them.

At least one member of the Iraq Study Group considers the new tone proof that President Bush is following some of the bipartisan group's advice -- at least partly because the new Democratic-controlled Congress is forcing his hand.

Republican Alan K. Simpson, the former US senator from Wyoming, describes the developments as "baby steps" -- small but significant signs that the Bush administration is replacing bluster with diplomacy, just as the study group recommended.

"The signs are little, but they are clear," said Simpson. " 'The big bulldog, I'm king,' that ain't working anywhere in the world. I think President Bush realizes this." Simpson connects the new Bush approach to Washington's new political landscape. "The president has to come closer to what the report recommended because of pressure from Congress," he said.

When the study group released its report in December, it looked like Bush couldn't bear to be rescued by an outside group of experts -- especially one cochaired by James A. Baker III, secretary of state under former President George H.W. Bush who remains close to the current president's father. But President Bush's actions since belie some of his initial disdain for the report.

The administration initially rejected the study group's call for a "New Diplomatic Offensive," which specifically recommended a dialogue between the United States, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States would participate in such regional discussions; Rice also started a round of talks with the Israelis and Palestinians. Noted Simpson: "Now you have Rice over there, doing something you haven't done in six years, some talking."

The study group report also flatly stated that "sustained increases in US troop levels would not solve the fundamental cause of violence in Iraq, which is the absence of national reconciliation." However, a less noted recommendation called for the United States to "significantly increase the number of US military personnel, including combat troops," as the Iraqi government assumed more responsibility for security. Bush backed a so-called troop surge, which prompted ongoing debate in Congress.

Some Democrats in Congress want to restrict funds for additional troops or place restrictions on their deployment. The House has already passed a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's Iraq policy. These efforts have drawn criticism from the Bush administration. Vice President Dick Cheney recently said Democratic leaders were pushing an Iraq policy that would "validate the Al Qaeda strategy."

While not referring specifically to anyone by name, Simpson denounced partisan attacks. Republicans "try to saddle Democrats as unpatriotic," he said. Democrats "bristle at that as they should. They are not unpatriotic because they see a failed situation and they want to get out of it. . . I don't believe any American serving in Congress is opposed to America coming out on top of anything."

Stubborn as ever, the Bush administration is loath to acknowledge any change in attitude or policy -- even changes that many Americans would welcome. "There is no crack," White House spokesman Tony Snow told The New York Times, in a story about the administration's new willingness to talk to adversaries, including Iran and North Korea. "A number of people have been characterizing US participation in a regional meeting as a change in policy; it is nothing of the sort."

But diplomatic outreach, whatever the impetus, is good news and should be welcomed by Democrats and Republicans, said Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Clinton and a Democratic member of the study group: "The administration's new approach," he said, "is a first step and a step in the right direction," whether it involves reaching out to Iraq's neighbors or announcing that North Korea will shut off its main nuclear reactor in exchange for food and fuel aid.

Asked whether Bush is being pushed by a new political reality in Washington, Panetta said, "If you look at the realities of war, I don't think you have any other choice than to begin to follow the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group."

Like Simpson, Panetta discourages bruising partisanship: "It's not going to help for the Democrats to fight each other, to have the House fighting the Senate, to have Congress fighting the president. The real struggle is to try to find a way to unify the country."

That means you could call the new Bush diplomacy too little too late. But it would be best to label it better late than never.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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