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Six months in office, Rice has taken charge

WASHINGTON—Six months into her tenure as America's top diplomat, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in a position that her predecessor, Colin Powell, could have only dreamt about.

Rice, President Bush's foreign policy mentor, has emerged as the unquestioned spokeswoman for U.S. foreign policy and the person in apparent control of key policy issues, according to U.S. government officials, foreign diplomats and analysts.

She and her team have taken control, ensuring that the State Department carries out Bush's second-term foreign policy goals and reviving it as a power center. The popular Powell was often seen as too independent and frequently found himself sidelined or forced to fight to protect the State Department's turf.

Rice, by contrast, faces less competition. The White House's National Security Council, which Rice led in the first term, is run by her former deputy, the low-key Stephen Hadley, and has faded in influence. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld intrudes less frequently in foreign policy, at least publicly.

Increasingly, the question from both Rice's fans and her critics isn't the extent of her power, but how she'll use it.

Bush and Rice face a series of difficult foreign policy decisions, including what to do if diplomacy fails in stopping Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs, how to nurture Israeli-Palestinian peace after Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip and, most important, how to stabilize Iraq and stop it from fueling terrorism outside its borders.

It remains to be seen, officials and analysts say, whether Rice will leave her stamp on world affairs or merely soften the edges of Bush's tendency to go it alone.

"She has the potential for being a fairly powerful secretary of state, perhaps even an unusually powerful secretary of state," said David Rothkopf, author of "Running the World," a just-released history of the National Security Council. "Having that power and using it are two different things."

"What we've seen in the last six months is some evidence she's used that power effectively internally" to cement her position, Rothkopf said. But "as of right now, we can't point to any Condoleezza Rice international initiatives. ... At some point or another, she's going to have to deliver."

Rice, in a recent interview with Knight Ridder, said she and Bush agreed to return diplomacy to the forefront after a first term in which America's image overseas was defined by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The president and I talked about establishing again the primacy of diplomacy in American foreign policy. ... It's not because I like frequent-flier miles that I'm traveling so much," she said.

Rice speaks in more visionary terms than Powell did, preaching the necessity of U.S. support for democracy, particularly in the Muslim world.

In private, she can be blunt—such as when she dressed down Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit after Egypt's arrest of opposition politician Ayman Nour, according to U.S. and Egyptian officials.

Important policies from Bush's first term remain unchanged under Rice: isolation of Iran, engagement with China, the attempt to rebuild Iraq.

But Rice has engineered shifts away from several hard-line positions she helped defend when she was at the White House.

Her first move was to repair relations with Europe, badly damaged by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She persuaded Bush to approve relatively minor concessions to Iran—permitting the sale of aircraft spare parts and lifting the U.S. block on Tehran's application to join the World Trade Organization—to help the Europeans negotiate with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The United States also has adopted a more flexible position toward nuclear negotiations with North Korea, dropped its opposition to another term for International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, and brokered a compromise allowing the International Criminal Court, opposed by Washington, to investigate atrocities in Sudan's Darfur region.

Rice, who puts a premium on U.S. relations with major powers, has elevated India's importance in Washington's geostrategic calculations, perhaps as a counterweight to China.

Rice often sounded hawkish as Bush's national security adviser. She helped make the case publicly for toppling Saddam Hussein, based on flawed statements about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorism.

In a speech Friday, Rice announced organizational changes at State to further Bush's priorities of combating weapons proliferation and promoting democracy, including a review of all current U.S. democracy programs and funding.

Some foreign policy watchers, as well as U.S. and foreign diplomats, see her as more independent now that she has moved to the State Department.

"I think we see her fingerprints all over U.S. policy," said Coit Blacker, a Stanford University Russia expert and close friend of Rice. "Condi is not an ideologue."

Others are more cautious about policy shifts with the hawkish Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney in place.

"Voldemort is still there," a senior foreign service officer said, using the name of the villain in the "Harry Potter" series to make a wry reference to the defense secretary.

The official, predicting battles to come, said, "There still has to be a reckoning on all kinds of issues, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Uzbekistan to Guantanamo." Like other career employees, he discussed his views of Rice and other Cabinet officers only on condition of anonymity.

Friction within Bush's national security team remains, even if it's less visible than in the president's first term.

For example, Cheney's office opposed the concessions toward Iran but was largely overruled, according to a well-placed diplomat who requested anonymity.

At State Department headquarters, Rice, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and a core group of a half-dozen senior aides swept aside Powell's team and quickly exerted control of the bureaucracy. More policies are being run from Rice's suite of offices on the seventh floor via "special assistants" and "special envoys."

The arrival of many White House loyalists at State, including Bush adviser Karen Hughes, alarmed career employees. Rice's tight-knit management style, emphasis on "message discipline" and warnings to end media leaks prompted speculation that she would fashion State into a political bullhorn for the White House.

Career employees feared losing State's role as a source of independent, nonpartisan foreign policy advice. Those concerns appear to have receded for now.

"I do believe in message discipline," Rice said in the interview.

The secretary said she sees her job as advancing Bush's policy of promoting democracy worldwide.

That policy "is the only agenda that answers the question of what do we do in response to what happened to us on September 11," she said. "So to the degree that I have imported that philosophy with me to the State Department—absolutely. Guilty."

As for concerns over her management style, Rice replied: "I think that people will find that I'm one of the most open and accessible people. ... I believe in open debate. I want to hear people who disagree. ... With all due respect, I don't expect them to disagree in the press."

Some bitterness can be found in State's middle levels, particularly over a recent incident in the European affairs bureau. Incoming Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried removed three veteran foreign service officers from top slots and replaced them with junior officers who had worked for him at the National Security Council.

Asked about it at a June "town hall" meeting with department employees, Rice said the junior officers deserved accelerated promotion because they were "extraordinary."

Louise Crane, a vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, mocked that rationale. "Here is some career advice," she said in an e-mail to association members. "Get a job on the NSC and hope your mentors there move over to the department. Identify a fast-riser, and get yourself known to him or her as `extraordinary'."

Yet some say Rice—18 years younger than Powell and less rooted in the Cold War—and her team have brought a generational change and fresh thinking to State.

"Long-range planning did suffer a bit in this building," said another foreign service officer, whose policy views are closer to Powell's than Rice's.

Rice's signature issue, Middle East democracy, faces uncertain prospects.

Violence is resurgent in Afghanistan, insurgency and ethnic tensions rage in Iraq, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appears unlikely to cede real power in elections this fall.

Rice and Bush seem likely to be judged on Iraq, above all. Given the costs and difficulties of the war, some mellowing in U.S. foreign policy was probably inevitable, officials and analysts say.

It "reflects a realization that the course that Cheney and Rummy have taken the president down on Iraq, in its implementation anyway, isn't taking him where he wants to go," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said recently. "That has to be Rice."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RICE

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050118 RICE bio

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