Taking Charge

It's no coincidence that the first two cabinet nominations of the second Bush administration are some of the very same people he first named in 2000. Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales were among the initial wave of appointments by George W. Bush, less than a week after the Florida recount was brought to a halt. Both were named a day after the president-elect's first big personnel announcement--the return of Colin Powell to government as secretary of State.

Four years later, there's an unmistakable symmetry. First, the choreography around Powell. The former four-star general was courted carefully by Bush in 2000, even though he wasn't part of the Texas governor's inner circle (like Rice or Gonzales). Powell's role was more than just to sprinkle stardust over the new president-elect. It was to lend him foreign policy gravitas, like Dick Cheney's addition to the ticket earlier that year; to reassure the world that a rarely-traveled governor could make the transition to the leader of the free world.

Powell's courtship ended within days of the president's inauguration. Powell imagined he would be helping an inexperienced president come to grips with a complex world. He imagined wrongly. In one week in March 2001, Powell said that U.S. policy towards Iraq would be focused on tightening sanctions on arms, while easing the more punitive restrictions on civilian life under Saddam Hussein. Within days Powell was under fire from conservatives who wanted to know why he wasn't planning to overthrow Saddam. Then Powell suggested the new administration would continue President Bill Clinton's approach of engagement with Stalinist North Korea. The next day, Bush himself--meeting with then president Kim Dae Jung--said the talks were over and the North couldn't be trusted.

It was around this time that Rice herself was taking her first steps on stage as national-security adviser in an unhappy collision of Bush's uncompromising foreign policy with America's awkward allies. At a meeting of European Union ambassadors, Rice told the ambassadors that the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases was simply dead. Such straight talk was hardly diplomatic, even if the Kyoto deal was going nowhere in Washington. Those comments helped to set a fractious tone across the Atlantic--a dialogue that only worsened as Rice and Bush began planning for war in Iraq. The contrast in style and substance between Powell and Rice is not superficial.

That's not to say that Powell couldn't be blunt, or that Rice can't be charming. Far from it. Powell could lash out at fair-weather friends like Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, in the run-up to the war in Iraq. And Rice can charm and outclass even the most skeptical Europeans, as she did when she urged them to kiss and make up with the United States in London in June 2003. Moreover Powell and Rice worked closely together before and after the invasion of Iraq. Their relationship, according to Powell, was warm and often funny. And Rice was genuine when she praised Powell at the White House on Tuesday, saying he was "a great and inspirational" leader at the State Department. "It is humbling to imagine succeeding my dear friend and mentor, Colin Powell," she said.

Even if she doesn't have all of Powell's charms and stature, Rice has something more influential: the ear of the president. As Powell's distance from the White House became apparent over the last two years, his position in the world's capitals was seriously weakened. Powell may have been adored overseas, but foreign ministers understood he was speaking for one faction within the Bush administration--and a faction that often seemed to lose in the bitter, internal struggles over U.S. foreign policy.

Rice has no such problems--and no such advantages. Powell's position as chief internal critic of Bush's policies made him even more popular abroad, where those plans were mostly disliked. Yet diplomacy is less about popularity than power. Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-- the most pressing crisis facing the administration after Iraq, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair never tires of reminding Bush.

After several frustrating forays into the region, Powell achieved little with two parties that seemed determined to continue with war. In contrast, Rice worked closely with Dov Weisglass, the senior adviser to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, as the Israelis secured U.S. approval for their plan to withdraw from Gaza and annex parts of the West Bank. Whether or not the rest of the world agrees with Sharon's plan, or American approval of it, is open to debate. What isn't questionable is that Rice was present at its creation, and will be there--as secretary of State--to see it come to reality next year.

In the snap analysis of some pundits, Rice is an almost neo-conservative hawk; just look at her hand in Sharon's approach to Gaza. Yet that hardly squares with her support for Powell during the run-up to war in Iraq. And it doesn't square with her support for the diplomatic channels to Iran and North Korea.

In reality, the biggest contrast between Rice and Powell is the use of their respective political skills. Powell deployed his charm with foreign officials, but could rarely travel overseas because, he said, he needed to stay in Washington to fight his corner. Rice should face no such need to cover her own back. And while Powell opted out of campaigning for the president's re-election (citing precedent for keeping his job non-partisan), Rice spent her time touring the battleground states this year (breaking with precedent in her traditionally non-partisan job). Whether that frees her to travel more than Powell, and achieve more than Powell, is unclear. But Rice will find it hard to be as popular as Powell, either inside the State Department's headquarters or outside these shores in the world's capitals. The shadow of her dear friend and mentor will be a long one.