Politics & Government

Can Rice save her legacy with 'Hail Mary' pass on Mideast?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state almost three years ago with strong support from President Bush, glamorous reviews in the news media and high hopes from America's diplomats.

Since then, Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf has ignored her pleas and imposed emergency rule, throwing a key counterterrorism ally into turmoil. In Russia, the country Rice prides herself on knowing best, she and Bush appear to have badly misread President Vladimir Putin, who's restored autocratic rule and his country's rivalry with America. Her drive for Middle East democracy has stalled in Lebanon and elsewhere, and other big issues, including the environment and relations with East Asia, have been relegated to the back burner.

In her own State Department, Rice's concept of "transformational diplomacy" is largely forgotten, a fanfare about better public diplomacy has faded and morale is sinking. Rice is under fire for her handling of staffing in Iraq, and the $740 million U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is riddled with problems and has yet to open.

Rice, usually loath to admit error, did so last month, telling Congress that her department should have provided better oversight of security contractor Blackwater Worldwide.

An ardent football fan, Rice is hoping to rewrite her legacy in the next 14 months, beginning with what amounts to a Hail Mary pass this week in a Mideast peace conference she's organized for Annapolis, Md.

More than any other Bush administration initiative, the conference to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace is Rice's, with Bush mostly supporting from the sidelines. Rice has traveled to the Middle East eight times this year to assemble the conference and has staked her reputation on its outcome.

"This is basically her baby," said William Quandt, a University of Virginia scholar who worked on the first Camp David peace talks under President Jimmy Carter.

Rice's effort got a boost Friday, when Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries grudgingly said they'd attend the meeting. That could give Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, both of whom are weak politically, some cover to make compromises.

Yet in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Rice has chosen perhaps the world's toughest diplomatic nut, one whose solution has eluded three generations of diplomats and scholars.

The Annapolis meeting, Rice said last week, will launch negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on an eventual Palestinian state, rather than conclude any agreements.

With little more than a year before she leaves office, it seems unlikely that a historic agreement can be reached under Rice's tutelage and unclear that Bush will invest the personal capital that history suggests is necessary to achieve a breakthrough.

It remains to be seen whether Annapolis is "going to be much more than a photo opportunity, with reaffirmation of a two-state solution," Quandt said. "And then they will go home."

As the one top foreign-policy official who's worked for Bush since he became president, first as national security adviser and then as secretary of state, Rice's record is intertwined with her boss's. That includes the failure to destroy al Qaida, the invasion of Iraq based on bogus intelligence, the fumbled postwar reconstruction and the halfhearted American effort to rebuild Afghanistan, all of which have eroded America's standing in the Muslim world, Europe and elsewhere.

Rice's friends and advocates argue that her record at State is stronger than her critics acknowledge.

"I actually think they're doing somewhat better than they're getting credit for," said longtime friend and aide Philip Zelikow, who served as Rice's counselor from 2005 to 2006. "They're playing a bad hand reasonably well."

Rice, he said, has overseen a marked improvement in relations with Europe in Bush's second term; held together a fragile international consensus against Iran's enrichment of uranium, which could be used for nuclear weapons; and is brokering a potentially historic disarmament deal with North Korea, which could lead to improved relations between China and Japan.

On Pakistan, he acknowledged, the Bush administration wasn't paying enough attention a year ago. That "changed a little late," said Zelikow, who's also at the University of Virginia.

On the Middle East conflict, Zelikow, who advocated a more energetic U.S. approach when he was in government, said Rice easily could have made the "canny political play" and avoided the issue at a time when pessimism ran high. "That's not the play she chose to make. Good for her," he said.

Other former aides are less charitable.

"We've let Putin and Russia elude our grasp," said former Undersecretary of State John Bolton, a prominent neo-conservative. "I rate that as one of the biggest disappointments, not because it has an immediate impact in the here and now," but because of Russia's anti-Western drift in the years to come.

Even as she finds herself a target for Democratic opponents of the Iraq war, Rice also is increasingly under fire from hawks such as Bolton, who argue that she's abandoned Bush's purist principles to negotiate with North Korea and pursue diplomacy for diplomacy's sake in Iran.

"Everybody's in the legacy mode now," Bolton said.

Indeed, Rice comes to Middle East peace negotiations relatively late, having downplayed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while she was national security adviser and spent her first years as secretary of state pushing Arab democracy as the cure to the region's woes.

It's been "a long, slow evolution for the whole administration . . . (to) get to the point where they recognize that this is a piece of the larger puzzle," Quandt said.

Still, he said, Rice is "not James Baker. She's not Henry Kissinger. These were secretaries of state who threw themselves into this with a kind of substantive and procedural intensity."

If the Arab world remains distrustful of Rice and the administration, she's also less than universally popular in the State Department, where many foreign and civil service officers say she's failed to provide support for the deployment of hundreds of diplomats to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The frustrations blew up at a meeting last month. Instead of facing her critics, Rice sent the director general of the Foreign Service, Harry Thomas, to field complaints about ordering diplomats to Iraq. (Volunteers later were found before Foreign Service officers were ordered to Iraq to fill the slots.)

A recent poll by the American Foreign Service Association found that only 12 percent of its members think Rice and her team are "fighting for them."

"There's significant frustration within the Foreign Service," association President John Naland said. The feeling is "our leadership in general doesn't appear to be looking out for us," he said.