It is not the U-turn in foreign policy that Ronald Reagan made with the Soviet Union in his second term. It is more like a skid on an icy road: The Bush administration has lurched from insisting on isolating its enemies abroad to adopting a more sophisticated diplomatic strategy of conditional engagement with North Korea and Iran.
Think about what you have heard, and not heard, in response to North Korea's sudden decision last week to return to the six-party negotiating table in Beijing. What you heard was applause from an administration that in the past insisted on achieving moral clarity in foreign policy by not rewarding adversaries for bad behavior. But when North Korea said it wanted to talk again, the White House issued immediate upbeat assessments - despite Pyongyang's having tested a nuclear weapon three weeks earlier.
I doubt that President Bush has abandoned his black-and-white view of the world's bad and good guys. But Bush has allowed the State Department to outflank Vice President Cheney and others in his administration who prefer confronting the bad guys where possible and the good guys where necessary.
The change is even more pronounced on Iran. While conventional wisdom holds that the administration is at fault for not talking to Iran, it is the Iranians who seem more reluctant today to engage in a serious dialogue with Washington.
A series of public and secret contacts between the two countries in the past two months has underlined the administration's move toward engagement.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered to join personally in high-level international negotiations over Iran's nuclear program once the Iranians suspend uranium enrichment for the duration of the talks. That offer has - at her request - been conveyed to Tehran by European negotiators with no results, involved diplomats tell me.
In September, the administration informed Iran directly of its willingness to allow General Electric to export spare parts for turbine engines to Iran Air because of concerns over the airline's safety record. After initially expressing doubt that the offer was genuine, Iran came back with a positive answer, and export permits were issued with little fanfare on Sept. 29.
And when Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, suddenly asked U.S. officials to expedite the issuance of 150 visas for the Iranian delegation he wanted to bring with him to New York for a meeting with European Union officials in mid-September, lights were kept burning late in the U.S. Embassy in Berne, Switzerland, to meet the request - only to have Larijani cancel the trip, and then deadlock the talks.
Other contacts - ranging from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's visit to Tehran to Jim Baker's meeting with Iranian U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif in the context of the former secretary of state's Iraq Study Group - went ahead in September with either no opposition or with encouragement from the White House.
The breakdown in the nuclear negotiations with Iran has spurred the administration to seek new sanctions against Iran at the United Nations. But even that does not deter the State Department from moving ahead with its efforts to encourage Iranian musicians, athletes and others not associated with their country's nuclear program to visit the United States. About 200 Iranian citizens, including a team of wrestlers invited by USA Wrestling for a February visit, are expected to be issued visas over the next six months.
The echoes of the Nixon administration's ping-pong diplomacy with China may not be accidental. But won't the drive for sanctions against Iran's nuclear program undercut this effort to "break down little barriers" in the 27-year estrangement triggered by the embassy seizure of 1979? I put that question last week to R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state and the point person for Rice's civic outreach policy.
"Sanctions on Iran's nuclear program are absolutely necessary," Burns said. "Pursuing a policy of encouraging exchanges with Iran's people is perfectly complementary to a sanctions resolution. Exchanges will give us a better understanding of Iranian society and should encourage the kind of response there that will push Iran to become a responsible society."
The answer was as complex as the policy that Burns and Rice are trying to implement. It will be hard for Iranians to understand the paradoxical elements in that policy, even if George W. Bush does seem to have gotten it. But who is going to persuade the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to talk back, in a productive fashion?