WASHINGTON—For four years, Condoleezza Rice has been President Bush's alter ego and virtual soul mate in crafting U.S. national security policies, including the most questioned one—the invasion and increasingly costly occupation of Iraq.
Now, as Rice prepares to become secretary of state, the question is how well she can craft a major transformation in her own role.
The in-house confidante and conductor of the government's vast national security machinery is about to become a very public diplomat-in-chief, her views inevitably clashing with other leading players on the Bush team.
Rice, 50, is likely to be easily confirmed to replace Secretary of State Colin Powell. Her Senate confirmation hearings begin Tuesday.
Some Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are expected to ask her about her role in Iraq policy and charges by former aide Richard Clarke that she and Bush failed to grasp the threat from al-Qaida before the Sept. 11 attacks. She has disputed those charges.
While widely praised as talented and articulate, Rice has been privately criticized by colleagues for failing to halt the fierce inter-agency rivalries that characterized Bush's first term.
On Iraq, she was a full partner in the White House's aggressive attempts to make the case for a preventive invasion.
"We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," she said in September 2002, arguing that Saddam Hussein was pursuing nuclear weapons.
No programs for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have been found, and the administration acknowledged last week that it shut down the hunt. The evidence the White House cited linking Saddam to terrorism has proved to be largely specious.
Rice isn't granting on-the-record interviews before her confirmation hearings, where she'll likely be asked mostly about her future policy priorities.
The United States faces an almost dizzying area of challenges: Iraq, where more than 1,350 U.S. soldiers have died and insurgents threaten Jan. 30 elections; Iran's and North Korea's nuclear weapons programs; China's economic and military growth; and the decline of democracy in Russia, where Rice's expertise is deepest.
In many key areas, Rice's current views are undefined publicly, reflecting the model of neutral security adviser that she established at the White House.
"She's like the ultimate Cheshire cat," said a former National Security Council official who worked under her and requested anonymity.
Bush's first term was marked by a split between a go-it-alone group, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, and those who emphasized the importance of diplomacy, led by Powell.
"I've seen others say that she is in neither camp. That seems pretty accurate to me," the former National Security Council official said.
Powell, in one of his few public comments on Rice's task, alluded to the difference between her past and future roles.
"Now her challenge is not to just deal with strong and different points of view and coordinate them, she is now one of them," he told National Public Radio.
Rice's move to the State Department has raised hopes, particularly in foreign capitals, that diplomacy will stage a revival in Bush's second term. Despite Powell's global popularity, the State Department was often on the margins of influence over the past four years, losing battles to the Pentagon and Cheney's office over Iraq, North Korea and other central issues.
David Rothkopf, who interviewed Rice for a forthcoming book on the National Security Council, predicted that her closeness to Bush will make her a more powerful secretary of state than Powell.
"The first time that (Defense Secretary) Donald Rumsfeld tries to do to her what he tried to do to Colin Powell, and she calls up the president and says, `This makes me uncomfortable,'" Bush will listen, Rothkopf said.
Less clear is what the balance of power will be between Rice and Cheney.
Rothkopf said Rice is likely to be transformed, as she goes from managing a National Security Council staff of 240 people to a Cabinet department with nearly 20,000 employees and operations worldwide.
Bush has sent signals that he intends to reach out early in his second term to Europe, where most nations broke with Washington over the Iraq invasion.
The president will travel to Europe in February, and Rice is said to be planning a trip there before that, in part to coordinate action on Middle East peace in the wake of the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority.
It remains to be seen how far rapprochement can go. A vast trans-Atlantic gulf remains over everything from Iraq to global warming to the treatment of terrorism suspects. There seems to be little chance that Bush will abandon an aggressive foreign policy.
But the increasing burden the Iraq war is placing on the U.S. armed forces and federal budget seems to make new military ventures less likely.
In reaching out to allies, the White House "is making a virtue out of necessity," said a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
Despite her lengthy service, including as an adviser on the Soviet Union to Bush's father and six years as Stanford University's provost, it remains unclear where Rice will take U.S. foreign policy.
Her worldview appears to have changed drastically since Bush's first presidential campaign in 2000, when she wrote a defense of the "realist," balance-of-power approach and disparaged nation-building.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she has articulated a more idealistic philosophy, stressing the U.S. role in spreading democracy, particularly in the Arab world, sometimes linking it to her childhood in segregated Birmingham, Ala.
Criticizing those she said believe the Middle East isn't ready for democracy, Rice said in a commencement address at Vanderbilt University last May: "That view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham, and it's wrong in 2004 in Baghdad."
According to Rothkopf, Rice neither initiated the drive to invade Iraq nor tried to stop it. "She played, with respect to Iraq, a kind of a facilitating role, not a driving role, nor a dissenting one," he said.
Clarke, Bush's former top counterterrorism adviser, wrote in his book, "Against All Enemies," that Bush and Rice ignored his repeated warnings about the gravity of the threat from al-Qaida.
Rice, testifying before the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission, disputed that, saying the administration was crafting a broad regional policy to deal with al-Qaida and that Clarke's proposals wouldn't have prevented the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The panel's final report chastised Rice and deputy Stephen Hadley for failing to alert domestic security agencies to warnings of an impending attack on U.S. interests.
(Knight Ridder correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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