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‘Madame Secretary’ begins her new job

Condoleezza Rice, the first black woman to hold the office,  took over Thursday as the 66th U.S. secretary of state and will confront an agenda laden with difficult and potentially explosive foreign policy problems.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks on first day at State Department
Condoleezza Rice tells workers at the State Department that “America will stand for freedom and liberty.”Larry Downing / Reuters

Condoleezza Rice, the first black woman to hold the office, took over Thursday as America’s 66th secretary of state, confronting an agenda laden with difficult and potentially explosive foreign policy problems.

At the top of her agenda will clearly be the ongoing war in Iraq, in which more than 1,400 U.S. troops have died. The deadliest day for American forces so far came Wednesday, when 37 U.S. troops were killed. 

But Rice exuded confidence as she entered the State Department with a cheery “It’s great to be here” and declared that “democracy will take hold” around the world as it did in most of Germany and Japan after World War II.

Rice was greeted by cheers and applause from hundreds of State Department employees who were gathered for her arrival at 8:15 a.m.

‘Bold agenda’
Evoking President Bush’s inaugural speech, Rice said, “America will stand for freedom and for liberty.”

She told those assembled that the State Department must be in front on Bush's “bold agenda” for a “freer and more prosperous world.”

As she did in her confirmation testimony, Rice invoked the decisions of 1947-49 as key to winning the Cold War and helping democracy take root in countries such as West Germany and Japan, where it was hard to imagine at the end of World War II.

“I know that there are those who wonder whether democracy can take hold in the rocky soil of the West Bank or in Iraq or Afghanistan. I believe that we, as Americans, who know how hard the path of democracy is, have to believe that it can.”

“That’s our charge. That’s our calling,” she said before starting her first day on the job with telephone calls to foreign ministers and a planned White House meeting on Iraq.

Started work already
State Department officials say that before arriving at the State Department, Rice had already begun talking from her home with world leaders, including Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

She held a senior staff meeting at 9 a.m. and also got a briefing at the State Department on the latest tsunami relief efforts.  

In addition, U.S. officials said Thursday that Rice would highlight her push for peace in the Middle East by visiting the region in early February.

The trip, from Feb. 3 to 10, will include stops in Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian territories to show the U.S. desire to repair frayed European ties and to focus on Middle East peace. She will also visit London; Paris; Berlin; Warsaw, Poland; Rome; Brussels, Belgium; and Luxembourg in Europe.

Rice was confirmed 85-13 Wednesday after tough Senate hearings last week in which she was peppered with 390 oral and written questions and was strongly challenged on Iraq and the war. She gave no indication that she would recommend any change in U.S. strategy designed to overcome insurgents and steer Iraq toward democracy.

However, she did acknowledge problems, citing desertions and poor leadership among the Iraqi security forces that are supposed to take charge of pacifying the country.

Rice did not hint at changes in diplomatic efforts to stop nuclear weapons development in Iran and North Korea.   

However, on the Middle East, she seized on the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian leader as the kind of opening that would impel her to take a personal role in trying to promote negotiations with Israel.

Rice is about a week behind schedule, delayed by critical Democratic senators who held up her confirmation.

Twelve Democrats and one independent, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, opposed Rice's confirmation. Several other Democrats criticized U.S. policy and Rice’s role in helping to shape it as Bush’s assistant for national security.

Lesson: Be nice to interns
Rice was sworn in Wednesday night by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in his West Wing office.

Her arrival at the State Department was orchestrated for an enthusiastic welcome by employees in the same mezzanine where Colin Powell bid farewell last week. Officials prepared her office overnight when her beloved football helmets and footballs were brought in to add a personal touch.

Bush planned to attend a ceremonial swearing-in Friday at the State Department, with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg administering the oath of office.

Rice noted that the welcome at her arrival was not the same greeting she had when she was an intern at the State Department in 1977. She joked, “The lesson in that is be good to your interns!”