The World According to Rice

Was Colin Powell angry? He's so smooth and politic it's hard to tell. But only a week before, the man President George W. Bush once likened to George C. Marshall had been, in effect, fired. The irony was that Powell, for a long time, had been planning to resign in 2005. He was tired of fighting losing battles as the most moderate (and popular) member of an administration ever riven with angry policy debates. But things had changed; world events, Powell thought, were going his way. He had actually headed into a Nov. 12 White House meeting with Bush with a full plate of plans, ready to stay on for a while, several sources say. Powell was cooking up important meetings in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, with the new Palestinian leaders and possibly even the Iranians. The problem: Bush simply did not ask him to stay. "We were in mutual agreement that it was the appropriate time for me to move on," Powell later explained. Great, but now he was headed off on his global tour as a lame duck. "What is he going to do, serve coffee?" sniped one Gulf Arab official in Egypt.

So a few days after he announced his resignation, Powell headed for APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum)--the Pacific Basin summit meeting in Chile where Bush would soon join him. En route, Powell casually dropped a little dynamite in the path of his successor and friend, Condoleezza Rice. Chatting with reporters in a white T shirt under a navy jacket with the State Department seal, he divulged raw, secret intelligence from an Iranian dissident group that indicated Tehran was studying ways to deliver nuclear warheads on missiles. Such issues, Powell noted, "require constant attention and, of course, will be priorities for Dr. Rice and the president in the next term."

The odd thing was that for the last four years, Powell has usually been the one who tamped down incendiary rumors and half-baked intelligence misused by the hawks. Now he himself is being accused of the same offense back in Washington, to the point where some pundits wondered whether the whole ramp-up to war in Iraq was going to happen all over again--against Iran, this time. Within days the White House and State Department were, for the umpteenth time, embroiled in a nasty wrangle. The White House insisted that Powell misspoke in revealing the warhead intel; State Department officials insisted he had not misspoken. One State official expressed "outrage" at a Washington Post article that painted Powell as being too loose with unverified and still-classified information. "All I am going to say is, the secretary is on solid ground with what he said," a State spokesman retorted.

Why Powell divulged the Iran intel remains a mystery. Was it pique, or perhaps one last leak, just for old time's sake? Whatever the motivation, the instant reaction in Washington last week was that his ouster was part of a purge of the dissenters who had so roiled Bush's first term, in particular, questioning his invasion of Iraq. Among the chief offenders were Powell's State Department and the CIA, where Bush's new director, Porter Goss, has come on strong and prompted some senior staff to head for the exits. By posting his most loyal aide, Rice, at the most recalcitrant agency, State, the president may be cauterizing a festering sore. Critics charged that Bush will be more divorced from reality than ever--that he seems to think the dysfunction of his first term was caused not by legitimate questions raised about his policies, but because some had the temerity to raise such issues at all.

Yet some Bush officials insist that Powell's ouster and Rice's move to Foggy Bottom were about far more than the New Loyalty in Washington. The changes also signal a second-term shift of emphasis from war to diplomacy. Colin Powell was widely admired, but the consensus both in Washington and abroad is that he wasn't very effective because he didn't have much sway with the president. Bush wanted to send a specific message: that Rice's "comments will directly reflect his thinking," as one administration official put it. "Diplomacy is going to be more crucial in the next years," the official adds--in places like the post-Arafat Mideast and India and Pakistan, and especially in preventing Iran and North Korea from developing nuclear arsenals. Bush, in a speech at APEC, also emphasized that he would soon travel to Europe to "renew our transatlantic ties." One early sign of success: Washington and Berlin agreed on Saturday to forgive a large portion of Iraqi debt, easing that country's path back to solvency.

Rice, the first-ever African-American woman to be nominated as secretary of State, brings impressive foreign-policy credentials--and a ferocious work ethic--to the task. A Soviet specialist in President George H.W. Bush's administration, she tutored the current president in foreign policy--and has since become his principal sounding board. But Rice has scant experience as an international negotiator and, prior to her nomination, seemed more interested in the Department of Defense. To bolster her, White House officials now talk up the "quiet diplomacy" she has conducted with Europe.

In her Senate confirmation hearings, Rice will face tough questions about her unwavering advocacy of Bush's hard-line foreign-policy approach. Critics say she often seemed overwhelmed at the National Security Council, a much smaller and more manageable operation than State. They say she failed in her job of refereeing disputes between Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that she approved the use of bad intel against Iraq and that she underplayed the seriousness of the Qaeda threat before 9/11.

And Rice's well-established bona fides as a hawk will be severely tested in the next four years. Most administration officials fear that pre-emptive strikes against either Iran or North Korea could be disastrous, and they know the U.S. military will be strapped by Iraq for years. So they are intent on shoring up flagging talks that three European nations, Britain, France and Germany, are holding with Iran, as well as six-party talks with North Korea, in which China, Japan, South Korea and Russia are the key players. Bush, meeting at APEC on Saturday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, spoke of the need for rogue North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to "hear a common voice."

So now, in one convulsive move, State has gone from a marginalized agency to a central one. Rice's deputy national-security adviser, Steve Hadley, wasn't even asked to stand when he was named her replacement at her announcement ceremony last week (Bush gave Hadley a smile and a nod as he sat quietly in the front row). Some observers believe that Rice, if she can manage to wrestle the giant bureaucracy down, could prove to be the most powerful secretary of State since Henry Kissinger, who also managed to install a deputy, Brent Scowcroft (later to become Rice's mentor), in the White House spot.

There were other signals that Rice's State Department will soon be the new center of gravity in U.S. foreign policy. Rumsfeld's Defense Department, once a powerful player, is bogged down in Iraq and may have lost some standing with the White House (Rice has occasionally expressed irritation at Rumsfeld's abrasive manner). There is also some rethinking of basic premises. In the first term, Bush officials tended to talk about alliances as if they were a barter system: you give us aid and troops, we'll make you a partner. Now some of these officials lament the loss of "a whole atmosphere of cooperation," as one put it. They note that China has been aggressively filling the global leader-ship vacuum they believe was left by Bush's approach and the rampant anti-Americanism that resulted. Beijing has prodded the European Union to consider lifting its arms embargo. It is also integrating its space programs with Europe and cutting commercial deals with Iran. All this has sent tremors through the U.S. defense and intelligence community, which before 9/11 had been largely focused on Beijing as a future threat.

So the answer is to launch a counterdiplomatic offensive. One sign that Bush was taking diplomacy seriously was the rebuff that Rice delivered last week to John Bolton, a fierce hard-liner and libertarian (he's often misidentified as a neocon) who bears an almost ideological hostility to multilateral talks. The under secretary of State is the leading arms-control official in the administration, but Bolton's unwillingness to compromise has earned him numerous enemies abroad, including even close allies like Britain. Bolton's conservative allies have campaigned aggressively to land him the deputy secretary's job being vacated by Powell's friend and ally, Richard Armitage. But a White House official said that Rice, who was out for minor surgery last week, has decided little about her future staff other than that "John Bolton would not be her deputy." Bolton, who may yet be appointed to some other senior post in the administration, has refused to comment on his future.

Is Rice up to the job of winning friends and influencing people abroad, many of them now deeply hostile to Washington? Even her critics don't doubt her inner steel and her much-tested self-control. They recall her famous confrontation with Boris Yeltsin in 1989 when, as a rising Russian politician, he stormily complained he was not being allowed in the White House's front entrance and she sharply cut him off. A new challenge for the Russia hand may be to convince Bush, who is still enamored of Vladimir Putin, that the Russian president may be creating a new authoritarian regime and needs to be reined in. Putin has not been especially cooperative on Iran's nuclear ambitions, and in recent days has indicated he intends to modernize his nuclear arsenal (an issue that Bush did not even raise in a meeting with him in Chile).

But Iran could become Rice's first serious test. The imbroglio over Powell's comments further complicated an already thorny problem. At issue: whether Rice will depart from the administration's steadfast refusal to offer incentives, as well as make threats. The European approach is to dangle economic and trade benefits. Hard-liners want to push for confrontation and regime change.

Iranian officials who had been gearing up for possibly historic if still-unscheduled talks in Egypt this week--and trying to decide whether they would accede to more aggressive inspections--were flummoxed by Powell's abrupt resignation. "Now suddenly this guy is going?" wondered one official familiar with Tehran's thinking.

Rice would do well to clarify where she stands--and soon. Top Iranian leaders, including the religious mullahs, are still debating the nuclear issue, say some Iranian officials. They argue that public goading by U.S. hawks will only strengthen the hard-liners and the defense establishment in Tehran. "The allegations by Powell are no more than attempts to prevent consolidation of a positive atmosphere," says one official close to Tehran. "This has been a trend. I invite you to check the stories that Bolton's office fed to the press following a similar deal [Iran] had with Europeans last February."

But first Rice will have to decide whether she's a hawk or not on Iran, and officials say she seems to be of two minds. In going to State, she will take on the institutional robes of a diplomat, and that will no doubt temper her hard-line leanings. Rumsfeld, asked about his epic battles with Powell, once described the different approaches of State and Defense by saying, "His job is to talk them to death and my job is to hit 'em over the head." Now that Powell's been silenced, Condi Rice had better start talking.