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The rise of Rice and a new 'realism'

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At the same time, it makes "perfect sense" to focus on Syria in the case of Lebanon, Mr. Lieber adds, because Syria is "causing problems with three of its neighbors" - Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel - that are in turn causing problems for the US and the international community.

But the cooperative stance the US is taking with partners - particularly the former bête noire France on Syria - is also reflective of other factors beyond the Bush administration, he says. "Now that the November election is behind us, countries that would have preferred John Kerry in the White House are being realistic themselves and coming to terms with this administration," Lieber says. "It's also important to realize that the fight over Iraq is over, and the world has moved on to what to do about post-Saddam Iraq."

And whereas Rice took a backseat and often criticized role in the first term's war years dominated by Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, the new reality - one that includes an emphasis on putting America in a positive light on the world stage - is one that fits the performance-oriented Rice.

Friends note that Rice, who has been giving piano recitals since she was a little girl (and who sometimes annoys interlocutors with a schoolmarmish lecturing that is reflective of the academic she is) is more in her element in the spotlight than when she was the behind-the-scenes presidential adviser. The high-heeled black boots she wore in Germany and the wowing red gown she stole the show with at Washington's annual Gridiron dinner - as well as promises to State Department employees to treat them some day to a recital - are all suggestions of that.

Of course, some question whether the administration is really moving in a new direction in dealing with the world. Danielle Pletka, a foreign-policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute - a Washington think tank that supplied the first Bush term with several key policymakers - says the approach may have changed, but policy has not. "There was consensus within the administration that burning bridges with allies without purpose was extremely self-defeating for the US," she says. "When you're in a position of setting the agenda on the world stage, as the US clearly is, you have to be a bit more careful about the gratuitous cracks about allies or disliking the Europeans on principle."

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