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Using ‘velvet’ touch, Rice takes control at State

After just six months on the job, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already achieved something her predecessor couldn't do in four years: wrest control of U.S. foreign policy.
US Secretary of State Rice gestures during news conference in West Bank city of Ramallah
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addresses the media during her visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 23.Laszlo Balogh / Reuters file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Three weeks after taking office, Condoleezza Rice hosted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and their Japanese counterparts at the State Department. When Rumsfeld began to speak, Rice gently cut him off. The message was clear: I'll take the lead, Don. Both Japanese and U.S. officials noted the decisive nudge.

Now six months on the job, Rice has clearly wrested control of U.S. foreign policy. The once heavy-handed Defense Department still weighs in, but Rice wins most battles -- in strong contrast to her predecessor, Colin L. Powell. White House staff is consulted, but Rice designed the distinctive framework for the administration's second-term foreign policy.

In short order, she has demonstrated a willingness to bend on tactics to accommodate the concerns of allies without ceding on broad principles, what she calls "practical idealism." She also conducts a more aggressive personal diplomacy, breaking State Department records for foreign travel and setting up diplomatic tag teams with top staff on urgent issues.

Rice preaches values-based diplomacy
U.S. foreign policy has always had "a streak of idealism, which means that we care about values, we care about principle," Rice said in an interview last week. "The responsibility, then, of all of us is to take policies that are rooted in those values and make them work on a day-to-day basis so that you're always moving forward toward a goal."

It is too early to know whether the new tactics will ultimately bring results, and many of Rice's steps so far this year have been limited to overtures or temporary fixes. But those have at the least created momentum where before there was deadlock.

On North Korea, Rice got the prickly Pyongyang government back to six-nation talks last week on nuclear disarmament by publicly recognizing it as a "sovereign state," then empowering her top aide on East Asia to repeatedly meet privately with the North Koreans -- extended contact forbidden during Powell's era.

On Iran, Rice agreed to offer incentives -- allowing the Islamic republic to apply for eventual membership in the World Trade Organization and buy badly needed spare parts for aging passenger aircraft -- in exchange for a European pledge to support U.N. Security Council action if talks fail. Powell had trouble just getting the White House to drop language including Iran in an "axis of evil," which implied eventual confrontation.

With India, she brokered a deal to sell peaceful nuclear technology that will cement U.S.-India relations, but which may also risk undermining the treaty to halt nuclear weapons proliferation.

On Sudan, Rice found middle ground between the administration's rejection of the International Criminal Court and U.N. efforts to launch a war crimes investigation into violence in the Darfur region. The State Department helped draft a U.N. resolution supporting an international probe that would pass -- but on which Washington could abstain.

Turning the tables
In the interview, Rice said she discovered on her first European trip that, particularly on the Iran issue, "somehow we'd gotten into a position where it was the United States that was the problem . . . that was not a good place to be." So she formulated action that put the onus back on Iran and, later, North Korea.

"Sometimes the power of diplomacy is not just saying no, but figuring out a way to protect your interests and principles to help the other guy -- or in this case the other countries -- move forward as well," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said. "It is the kind of diplomacy some of our critics had felt we were no longer capable of, that we were a kind of superpower saying 'yes' or 'no' but not anywhere in between."

Still, the major global challenges of President Bush's first term remain unsolved in the second. Winning agreements from either Pyongyang or Tehran to end their nuclear programs remains elusive. And more than 2 million Sudanese are now stuck in refugee camps, their villages and livelihoods destroyed, with no solution in sight.

Rice's legacy is more likely to be determined by two historic challenges: salvaging the U.S. intervention in Iraq and making headway in promoting democracy in the Islamic world. On both, long-term strategies are not yet visible.

"If we are not able to find a meaningful or satisfying closure to Iraq, whatever definition of success we can rally around, whatever good ideas they have for the rest of the world will be undermined," said Derek Chollet, former foreign policy adviser to John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate. "All of this will be words if they don't get Iraq right."

‘Did not yield’
Rice has worked hard -- at a pace that sometimes seems like a campaign -- to overcome her image during Bush's first term as a weak national security adviser who struggled to mediate among the strong-willed personalities vying to shape foreign policy. As secretary of state, she has surprised allies with her blunt use of diplomatic tools to make a point.

Rice cancelled a visit to Egypt and temporarily suspended $200 million in aid to signal displeasure with the arrest of a pro-reform politician. She also scrubbed a visit to Canada when it nixed participation in U.S. missile defense, a trip still not rescheduled. During a stop in Saudi Arabia, she publicly told the desert kingdom to enfranchise women. And after a trip through the rocky hills of the West Bank, where she noted new Jewish settlement construction, she cautioned Israel that more building might violate an agreement it made with Bush a year earlier.

On her first trip abroad, Rice warned the European Union not to lift an arms embargo on China, telling diplomats they would rue the day if U.S. troops ever faced European-armed Chinese soldiers across the Taiwan straits. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who then held the rotating European Union presidency, was so startled by her tough talk that he spilled his coffee in the lap of European foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

"The Europeans sent delegation after delegation saying, 'Please be more flexible.' She did not yield," Burns said. "She told them, 'You've united the Democrats and the Republicans in Congress. That's not an easy thing to do.' " The Europeans ultimately shelved their plan.

The ‘velvet hammer’
Colleagues have dubbed Rice the "velvet hammer." Philip Zelikow, State Department counselor and a close adviser, said that "one of her gifts is that she knows how to say very direct things to foreign governments in a way that is not confrontational. She is very assertive, very firm, but doesn't leave them feeling sullen and resentful."

When Rice rescheduled her trip to Cairo last month, she used it to give the first speech by a senior U.S. official on Arab soil that challenged Arab leaders to embrace democracy.

"The world's general reaction to her has been positive so far," Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy said. "That's not to say we agree with everything she says or does, but that's not the criteria."

Unlike Powell, Rice enjoys taking her case on the road -- spending more than a third of her time traveling, often on punishing schedules that include flying all night in the cramped quarters of Air Force Two.

When Rice visited Paris in February to give a speech on U.S.-European relations, French Ambassador Jean David Levitte said, she "really changed the atmosphere -- of the media, of public opinion -- about the Bush administration. It was really a turning point."

Because of her impact generally after first six months, he concluded, Rice is "probably the most powerful secretary of state in decades."

‘Art of diplomacy’
Rice has worked to redefine administration strategy on several fronts and, in the process, has ended much of the internal squabbling, insiders say. During Bush's first term, foreign policy had two competing themes, framed by "realists" under Powell at State who sought pragmatic accommodation with the world on common goals, and "neo-conservatives" at the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney's office who had grand visions of remaking the world, even if it meant defying allies.

For the second term, Rice has charted a strategy spanning both -- her "practical idealism."

"Somebody said that, you know, the art of diplomacy is getting everybody to the place that your policies are their policies," Rice said. "Well, some of diplomacy is finding a place where your policies and their policies come together. And I think that's what we've been spending a lot of time on."

Rice's control over policy has been enhanced because she has a close relationship with the president, and is the first secretary of state since Henry A. Kissinger to serve first as national security adviser. Stephen J. Hadley, the former deputy who inherited her old job, "has taken kind of the backseat role," said a Middle East envoy, echoing several other diplomats as well as U.S. officials. "Everything is run and coordinated from State." Bush, said one outside adviser, "trusts her absolutely, as a counselor, as a friend, as a member of the family."

Rice still has a strong cautious streak. Public comments are constrained, often only bland talking points. She has made three visits to Israel to coordinate its departure from Gaza, but some experts say her intervention has been too sporadic to ensure that the Israelis and Palestinians work together. And despite expertise on Russia, she has focused on cooperation with President Vladimir Putin on non-Russian issues, while avoiding confrontation over his erosion of democracy.

Selling democracy at home and abroad
More than anything, Rice has placed the president's promotion of democracy in the Arab world at the top of the agenda. It is a theme she hits repeatedly, both overseas and within the bowels of the department.

At a town-hall meeting with State Department staff last month, Rice compared the early 21st century with the 1940s, "another time when, after war, the United States was confronted with an international environment that was changing rapidly. . . . I think of our goal and our strategy and our purpose as trying to use American diplomacy to build a firm foundation now at the end, again, of a great national trauma."

In a leap of faith 60 years ago, Rice told her staff, the United States argued that Japan could become a democracy, even though its society was not Western and its governments were historically autocratic. Today, after two wars in the Islamic world, Rice believes the Middle East can undergo similar change.

With the honeymoon period ending, Rice still has to prove that her new approach will generate substantive and enduring gains.

"She's off to a strong start. But it takes time to turn a supertanker," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The administration is beginning to realize it's not enough to be strong. We also have to be smart, that we can't secure America's interest solely with force, acting alone. I hope Condi completes the turn from ideology to reality."