Condi In The Hot Seat

First to take the fall was CIA Director George Tenet. He apologized for not stopping President Bush from declaring, in the State of the Union, that the Iraqis were trying to buy yellowcake uranium in Africa, a claim based on thin or fraudulent intelligence. Then last week it was deputy national- security adviser Steve Hadley's turn to fall on his sword. A shaken Hadley confessed to reporters that the CIA had, in fact, warned the White House in October to be wary of British intelligence reports about the Iraqis and African uranium--but that he had forgotten all about it when it came time to draft the president's State of the Union Message in January.

Amid the high-level mea culpas, one voice was significantly missing. National-security adviser Condoleezza Rice has been defiant, and more than a little defensive, in her insistence that the flap about hyped-up intelligence was "overblown." She may have a point: proof could still turn up that Saddam Hussein harbored a secret WMD program. But Rice's own role in allowing the controversy to spin out of control raises questions about how well she is doing her job.

Rice has always enjoyed a good press, but last week the Teflon started to wear off as she found herself under attack for having misled reporters about a pre-9/11 intelligence briefing on Al Qaeda, given the president at his Texas ranch in August 2001. At a press conference in May 2002, Rice had downplayed the significance of the warnings. But last week a congressional inquiry showed that Bush had indeed been put on notice that Qaeda operatives were seeking to attack the American homeland.

As national-security adviser, Rice is supposed to coordinate between the State and Defense Departments and the intelligence community to bring some kind of coherence to American foreign policy. Although Bush's big-stick approach to terrorism has been clear enough, the implementation has at times been rocky and confused. Always poised and polished, Rice is an inspirational figure--the first black woman national-security adviser--and no one doubts her closeness to President Bush. But when it comes to riding herd on the big egos in the Bush's war cabinet, Rice too often has been ineffectual.

It would be tough for anyone to stand up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or Vice President Dick Cheney. And Rice's defenders say that she intentionally chose to be a less intrusive national-security adviser than some of her predecessors, like Henry Kissinger under Nixon or even Sandy Berger under Clinton. But her critics say she has let the neocons run roughshod over the national-security-policymaking machinery, especially on Iraq. Rumsfeld's troops have been particularly unruly, sometimes boycotting midlevel meetings if they don't like the probable outcome.

Rice has a chance to redeem herself in the Middle East. President Bush has asked her to get directly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Rice's partner in this difficult task is Colin Powell, a more comfortable ally than Cheney or Rumsfeld. But even if she makes progress in Israel, even tougher problems--like North Korea and Iran--await.