A caustic former US ambassador named Chas Freeman compiled a volume he called “The Diplomat’s Dictionary. It included several memorable definitions, including “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ till you can find a rock, and “Diplomacy is letting someone else have your way. The Bush administration, which has generally favored the “find a rock strategy, now seems to be bending toward the subtler “have your way approach. This conversion is long overdue. But it will require the administration to do what it has sometimes found hardest, which is to prioritize its foreign policy goals and go all-out on the ones it decides are most important. The clearest example of the administration’s new outreach is its turnabout on discussions with Iran and Syria about how to stabilize Iraq. A year ago, the Iranians (responding to what they thought was an American overture) announced they were ready for such talks – whereupon the administration pulled back. That was a serious mistake that made the Iraq mess even worse. Now, Bush is altering course slightly, with last week’s announcement that the United States will join a regional conference in Baghdad. But the administration shouldn’t go into these talks holding its nose. If the administration is serious, it should use the initial meeting to set up regular US-Iranian discussions about Iraq. The administration should also start a real dialogue with Syria – and in the process shelve any half-baked ideas about regime change that may be lurking in the Old Executive Office Building. The Syrians pose a deadly threat in Lebanon, which is all the more reason to be talking with them. The obvious person to begin this conversation is the former US secretary of state, James A. Baker, who knows the Syrians well from his days in office. And speaking of Baker, the administration seems to be tacking back toward the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which Bush appeared to dismiss back in December. Bush’s top aides have concluded they made a mistake in seeming to reject the Baker-Hamilton report and announcing their troop surge a month later as if it were an alternative. In the process, they set back hopes for a bipartisan policy on Iraq – something officials now regret. One senior administration official explained: “We think our Iraq strategy is consistent with Baker-Hamilton. We want to get to the same place, but not on the same timeline. Baker-Hamilton said our strategy is underpowered in terms of diplomacy. What we’re saying today is: We heard you. We are picking up the pace on regional and international diplomacy. I can’t buy the claim the administration has supported Baker-Hamilton all along, but this is certainly a welcome change of tone. Making hard diplomatic choices will be especially necessary if the administration is serious about brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sometimes acts as if she can merely dangle a toe in this whirlpool, but to make progress, she will have to jump in the deep end. And as a mediator, she is bound to make some Israelis and Palestinians angry. The final areas where the administration is rediscovering diplomacy are its dealings with China and Russia. Bush played the China card effectively in the six-party talks with North Korea, and the administration sensibly decided to cut an imperfect deal with Pyongyang, even if it brought brickbats from the right wing. The Russia diplomacy may prove the most delicate of all. Russian President Vladimir Putin is the essential ally in US efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear program, but Putin made clear in Munich last month that there will be a price for Russia’s help. After the speech, Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, traveled to Moscow to visit Putin in what one official describes as a “meeting of mutual respect and dialogue. A senior official explains the Russian message this way: “We want to be your partner. We have common interests. You have to treat us with respect – talk to us early and take us into account. After a slow start, the Russians are indeed becoming a reliable partner on Iran. They informed State Department officials this week that they will support a quick new United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Iran. And they have even voiced a willingness to halt work on the nuclear reactor they’re building for the Iranians at Bushehr. And what will we offer the Russians, in return for their cooperation on Iran? Well, that’s the art of diplomacy. Syndicated columnistDavid Ignatius is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.