A change of guard - not policy - at State

The changing of the guard at the State Department may mean change in nuance and style, but not in the direction of President Bush's foreign policy.

Colin Powell - a child of Jamaican immigrants and a soldier-statesman who could possibly have become president - is moving on. Condoleezza Rice, - a Russia expert who moves easily between academia and government, one of Mr. Bush's closest foreign affairs advisers - is set to move in.

Both are sturdy Bush loyalists.

Mr. Powell had reservations about occupying Iraq, warning the president: "If you break it, you own it." But when the president decided to go, Powell saluted and supported the decision. He placed his reputation on the line with a UN presentation about Iraq's hidden weapons of mass destruction, based on CIA misinformation that proved embarrassingly inept.

Ms. Rice has similarly been a back-to-the-wall defender of the president in the face of an angry onslaught from critics of his incursion into Iraq, and the postwar turmoil that has ensued. There probably will be the same disagreements that Powell had with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's band of no-holds-barred infighters at the Pentagon over the use of force versus diplomacy. There will be a cautious relationship with a CIA in upheaval. But there will be no freelancing in foreign policy at the State Department. When the president speaks, Condoleezza Rice will salute and execute orders as smartly as did Powell.

Which brings us to the foreign policy style Bush will pursue in his second term. It would be astonishing if a president who believes he won substantial capital at the polls in support of that policy would sharply change its basic thrust. But Bush has talked of reaching out, at home and abroad, to those who did not support him. His legacy will be determined largely by his second term in the presidency. That legacy would benefit by a broader, more cordial relationship with America's allies.

There are signs that the president is willing to work at that. After receiving congratulatory calls after the election from some hitherto petulant foreign leaders, Bush is planning a postinaugural trip to Europe. If it turns out to be a charm offensive, the internationally well-respected Powell, had he stayed, would have been a sturdy support to Bush. Rice would be as gracious and charming in that role, if the president so dictates. So the question is: Will he?

The president and his new secretary of State face some difficult challenges.

In Iraq, in the face of a violent insurgency, they must nurture elections early next year and foster the emergence of a post-Saddam Hussein government groping for democracy.

In the aftermath of Yasser Arafat's passing, they must support elections early next year to determine succession, and again work for the emergence of a post-Arafat government striving for democracy and stability. This is the key to a possible accord with Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon permitting the establishment of a Palestinian state with which Israel would feel secure. To make this conceivable, Bush would need to expand a considerable amount of the political capital he feels he has won with both Mr. Sharon and the new Palestinian leadership.

With Iran, Bush and his new secretary of State must strive to forestall that unpredictable state's development of nuclear weapons. The governments of France, Germany, and Britain are reacting cautiously to an Iranian pledge to suspend uranium enrichment activities temporarily in return for a variety of economic incentives.

With North Korea, the US administration confronts a similar problem, namely Pyongyang's stubborn pursuit of nuclear weaponry.

Given the history of recent US involvement and commitment in Iraq, a US military option for eliminating these Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions seems currently unrealistic. Hence diplomacy comes to the fore. That diplomacy would be fortified by the support of allies. In a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week, Bush sent a conciliatory signal when he said: "The world is better off, America is better off, Europe is better off, when we work together."

Discussing his jousting with other cabinet members, Powell once said that at the end of the day, he cared about the opinion of only one man: George W. Bush. Even as he sought to mend and consolidate America's foreign alliances, he remained true to that end. Rice will be similarly loyal. Powell would be vindicated if her tending of those alliances proved to be even more fruitful.

John Hughes, who served as assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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