Can State Department rise again?

As Condoleezza Rice faces confirmation hearings next week as secretary of State, she signals a pragmatism on foreign affairs.

When Condoleezza Rice goes to the Senate next week for confirmation hearings as secretary of State, she will appear before a row of senators as something of an enigma: a national security adviser who oversaw a steady shift of authority over foreign policy toward the Pentagon and the vice-president's office, and is now taking over the agency she helped eclipse.

The big question in Washington is whether she will reestablish the preeminent role of the State Department in foreign affairs, helping the careerists on C Street exert more influence over everything from Iraq to Ukraine. Certainly the early signs suggest this is her goal. Even her taking the job at State offers some indication. President Bush's closest confidante on foreign policy since the 2000 election, she initially hoped for the Defense secretary's chair.

Yet the signs are also visible in some of her initial appointments. Most notable is her choice of US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, a longtime associate and foreign policy pragmatist, to be her deputy. His

selection sends a signal of independence from neoconservative elements that have influenced both Dick Cheney's and Donald Rumsfeld's offices.

A tough trade negotiator who along with Ms. Rice was part of Gov. George Bush's original foreign-policy advisory team, Mr. Zoellick - already a cabinet-level official as US Trade Representative - would not have taken the deputy secretary of State job, sources say, if the agency were to continue to be overshadowed by the Pentagon or White House factions.

What the Zoellick choice suggests, they say, is that Rice intends to pursue a style that can not be pigeonholed as either multilateralist or unilateralist, traditional Republican or neoconservative, but assertive and reflective of the post-9/11 world.

Zoellick's appointment, which will not become official until after Rice is confirmed, "is no victory for the Scowcroft wing of the Republican Party, but neither is it a victory for the neoconservatives who were out to extend their hold on foreign policy," says Ivo Daalder, a foreign-policy specialist at the Brookings Institution here. "It signifies at the very least that [Rice] is determined to make the State Department a major player again in Bush foreign policy."

In other moves, Rice is taking with her Nicholas Burns, US ambassador to NATO, and Robert Joseph from the National Security Council. Like Zoellick, they are not ideologues.

A new realism forged by 9/11

Some of Rice's friends say her tenure as national security adviser revealed little about the Russia expert and former Stanford University provost, but that her new job is likely to bring out a mix of both her realist roots and a 21st-century world vision forged by the Sept. 11 attacks.

Rice is "an interesting combination of the traditional and the transformational," says Coit Blacker, director of the Stanford Institute for International Studies in Stanford, Calif., and a former colleague of Rice's. "In many ways, she's a traditional foreign-policy realist, but at the same time she's the first to say that the events of Sept. 11 have been transformational in nature."

On the "traditional" side, Mr. Blacker says Rice will attach great importance to reinvigorating important bilateral relations. Noting that Bush's first foreign trip of his second term will be to Europe to mend ties frayed as a result of the Iraq war, he adds, "We can see her handwriting all over it."

Rice has set as one of her top goals the repair of ties to traditional allies - and Bush's trip to Europe next month is evidence of that. (Bush, who will visit German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder after a stop in Brussels at NATO and European Union headquarters, could also receive French President Jacques Chirac in Washington before or after the trip).

Zoellick, who worked with Rice on US policy towards German reunification, is well-regarded in Europe. But some experts also point out that he is no soft-diplomacy multilateralist, noting that he is one of the original "Vulcans," who, along with Rice, advised then-Gov. George Bush on foreign policy.

Stanford's Blacker says the acceptance of the deputy position at State by a cabinet member hints at the integral foreign-policy role Rice has in mind. "It sends a signal that she wants a professional set of hands in the office next door to her," he says.

At the same time, sources say, it was Zoellick, among others, who urged Rice to take the secretary of State job. They argued that with her close ties to the president and a well-assembled team she could make the post an influential one - much as James Baker or Henry Kissinger had done.

Speculation following Rice's nomination was that she would name as her deputy John Bolton, the undersecretary for arms control and international security and a tough-talking proponent of a unilateralist approach to US security. That would have been a victory for foreign-policy hardliners. But Zoellick sets a very different tone, both as Rice's longtime associate and as a tough but successful trade negotiator.

"[Bolton] and Zoellick differ so widely in their images: Bolton appearing to be tougher on rogue states to the point of using force unilaterally if necessary, with Zoellick appearing to be a coalition builder in the manner of his mentor, James Baker," says Raymond Tanter, who served with Rice in the White House of the first President Bush.

What Rice's critics say

Still, big questions remain - and some senators say they will ask them - about how Rice will run the foreign-policy apparatus, and how she sees its role in relation to other agencies. What does it say about Rice's vision for the State Department, for example, that the White House turned postwar reconstruction of Iraq over to the Pentagon? And where does Rice's well-known disdain for nationbuilding projects stand today, when the US is in the midst of one of its most ambitious plans ever for refashioning a country?

"Everybody knew the only agency that should not run nationbuilding is the Defense Department, and that is a major failure of this administration, one for which Condoleezza Rice bears great responsibility," says Mr. Daalder.

Daalder, who served on the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, says "it is not true," as a recent Pentagon study concludes, that nationbuilding projects should be run by the State Department. "You do it with White House coordination of many agencies," he says.

Rice's skepticism toward nationbuilding is often tied to her now-famous comment before Bush took office - that it's not the business of US soldiers to escort children to school. But Stanford's Blacker says Rice, if asked, would link nationbuilding now to 9/11 and what the Bush administration "characterizes as the global war on terror."

"She would say that the world has changed," he says. "She would argue that 9/11 left us with no alternative but to go into places like Afghanistan or Iraq that constitute a direct or indirect threat to the US."

Misgivings about Rice come from more than the left. Some conservatives are worried that she won't be as black and white in dealing with security threats - particularly the "axis-of-evil" countries Iran and North Norea.

The overriding need to bring order to Iraq will dominate much of second-term foreign-policy decisionmaking, says Mr. Tanter. "To stabilize Iraq, Rice and Zoellick may give in to Iran," he says.

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