Just two years ago, Donald Rumsfeld was the big man on George W. Bush's campus--the "matinee idol," as the president once called him--and Condoleezza Rice was just another obstacle for the Defense chief to run through. Former staffers on Rice's National Security Council, some still bitter, describe Rumsfeld's contempt for the NSC, and his numerous end runs around Rice. One official recalls a day when Rumsfeld and other "principals" were at a White House meeting. Someone referred to the NSA. "What's that?" Rumsfeld asked mockingly. "That's the national-security adviser," came the answer. Rumsfeld shot back, "Who's that?" Rice leaned over and said, "Don, that would be me."
Suffice it to say, Condi Rice doesn't need to remind Donald Rumsfeld where she is in the pecking order any longer. It's not just that two years ago was a time of war, of knocking things down, while now is supposed to be a time of diplomacy, of building things up--Arab democracy, renewed alliances, a new and improved U.S. global image. The new secretary of State has also rushed onto the world stage with force and style, and with the fair wind of the Arab Democratic Spring at her back. Suddenly the controlled, impeccably mannered woman who spent four years ducking into Bush's shadow is drawing every spotlight, black boots and all. "I think she's having the time of her life," says her old friend Coit Blacker, a former Stanford colleague. "Condi has been a performer since--well, I think her first piano recital was when she was 4 or 5 years old. She's not particularly shy."
Though by most accounts she and Rumsfeld are friendly--they talk on the phone at 7:15 a.m. every day--the 72-year-old Defense chief may not be taking his partially eclipsed status very well. Last month, while on his own (far less covered) trip to Germany, Rumsfeld was asked by a NATO parliamentarian about Rice's policy of consulting with European allies. Would he do the same? "Condi Rice doesn't have a policy," he responded. "The president of the United States and the United States have policies." Asked to comment for an article on Rice's performance, one Pentagon official, sounding a bit defensive, said, "Isn't it a little early to be writing a story on how well she's doing as secretary of State?"
No one should ever count out Rumsfeld, a brilliant infighter who in two separate eras outmaneuvered two giants of foreign policy, Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell. But whereas Bush defined himself as a "war president" in his first term, now he can't get enough of his "new diplomacy," and Rice is his chief instrument. With the Army still strapped down in Iraq, and resentment lingering inside the White House that the Pentagon did not keep Bush fully apprised on the insurgency and Abu Ghraib Prison scandal, some Washington observers see Rumsfeld as, if not quite a spent force, then a lesser one. "The White House lost confidence in Rummy in late 2003 when his predictions on Iraq weren't panning out," says conservative journalist Bill Kristol. Rumsfeld is now said to be somewhat detached from Iraq, focused inwardly on what he sees as a big part of his legacy, the unglamorous if necessary task of military "transformation." Though he has given no sign he might depart early, rumors have flown for weeks that Rumsfeld could leave after the quadrennial defense review--a major rethink of military policy--expected by the end of 2005. "It seems like Rumsfeld's daily involvement in Iraq has evaporated," says a State official.
Among those said to be eying his post is newly retired deputy secretary of State Richard Armitage, a bitter rival of Rumsfeld's. Armitage, who tells friends that the Defense job is the only one that could lure him back into government, recently decided not to return to his old consulting firm, Armitage Associates, but to set up a new one, Armitage International. The new firm will mainly arrange speaking engagements for him, avoiding corporate contracts that could cause him conflict-of-interest problems. "It makes things easier from a number of angles if Mr. Armitage does go back to government soon," an Armitage associate, Kristin Burke, told NEWSWEEK. Asked about Rumsfeld's future, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said only, "He has spoken to the fact that the president has asked him to stay on."
While Rumsfeld watches his rear, Rice is a wellspring of fresh activity. Up at 5 a.m. every day, she is building a mini policy empire that includes considerable sway over her old domain, the NSC (where a key deputy, Elliott Abrams, will answer to her on the Mideast as well as to her former deputy, new national-security adviser Steven Hadley). And after four years in which she herself suffered sometimes savage criticism--her total devotion to Bush resulted in a weak, disorganized NSC, critics said--she is probing every murky corner of Foggy Bottom. "She calls early-morning meetings, late-night meetings," says one senior State official, eyes rolling in exasperation. "Then there are the Saturday meetings. This is her life." Adds senior adviser Jim Wilkinson: her "approach to the job is based on the principle of no wasted motion. That means every meeting, trip, phone call or statement should count."
For the moment, most big decisions are being shoved onto Rice's diplomatic track. That includes Mideast talks; shaping nascent democracy in Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt; combining with the French to prod Syria out of Lebanon, and rejuvenating talks with Iran to force dismantlement of its nuclear program. "I like the way it's going," says Sen. Joe Biden, the senior Foreign Relations Committee member who lectured Rice at her confirmation hearings in January, "Don't listen to Rumsfeld!"
Perhaps the critical test of Rice's influence at the moment is Iran. Pentagon hawks, said to be backed by Vice President Dick Cheney--still considered the "tiebreaker" in policy battles--want to confront Tehran. Rice has urged that diplomacy be tried first, and she seems to have the president on her side. European sources say the president told European leaders that he would back their negotiations with Tehran, including an offer of such inducements as World Trade Organization membership and badly needed airplane parts, with a possible sale of new civilian airliners from Boeing or Airbus. But Bush will provide these "carrots" only if Iran completely stops its uranium-enrichment program. That could mean a blowup with Tehran, which warned last week that it would never permanently halt its program. And Bush clearly hasn't lost his martial instincts: "All options are on the table," he pointedly reminded the Europeans. Yet for now, the option being played is diplomacy, and that's Condi Rice's hand.