WASHINGTON — Testing the waters.
On several levels, that is what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be doing as she undertakes Thursday a crucial first foreign trip of her new job, to Europe and the Middle East.
Riding a jet stream of momentum from the Iraqi elections, Dr. Rice will plumb Europe for openings toward greater allied participation in Iraq, as well as for greater cooperation on Middle East peace.
In Israel and the Palestinian territories early next week, she will assess progress so far in taking advantage of the opportunities opened by the election of a new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to disengage from Gaza.
But Rice will also be trying out her new role, where she is more the nation's top diplomat and less the presidential adviser than she was as national security adviser. How will her influence in the White House stack up now, for example, against that of Vice President Dick Cheney's office, which is expected to maintain keen interest in US policy toward Israel?
More broadly, she will be testing reaction to the US among key foreign partners under a second Bush term, and to herself in particular as the successor to Colin Powell. A secretary of State who was highly admired in foreign capitals, Mr. Powell in the end was seen as a Bush administration outsider. Now foreign leaders will be getting to know an "insider" with close personal ties to the president.
As she does this, Rice is expected to try out the administration's new foreign-policy tone. "In her [Senate] testimony, Rice called this a time for diplomacy, she emphasized working with allies, and she wants to build on that by [signaling] that this administration gets it, that even the most powerful country in the world can't reach its goals on its own," says Bruce Jentleson, director of the Terry Sanford Institute for Public Policy at Duke University. "She seems to want to get that message out there strong and early."
One of Rice's more symbolic events will be a speech she'll give in France, a country she once famously said the US should "punish" for its opposition to the Iraq war. "She wanted to do it in Paris because she felt Paris was one of the places where there is a lot of debate and discussion about the US and Europeans," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said earlier this week. He said Rice wants to "put her ideas into the mix."
Yet this maiden trip can't be all listening and symbolism, some analysts warn. Mr. Jentleson, who served on the State Department's policy planning staff in the Clinton administration, recalls that Warren Christopher made a maiden trip as secretary of State to Europe with the goal of ushering in an America that would listen better - and was criticized for it. "He was criticized for not leading enough," Jentleson says. "You have to go with some specifics."
The US is interested in hearing what more the Europeans will be willing to take on in Iraq - a special meeting of NATO foreign ministers has been called to greet Rice, with training of Iraqi security forces on the agenda. For their part, Europeans want to know in particular what steps the second-term Bush White House will be taking in a newly promising environment between the Israelis and Palestinians, and toward Iran. They are also pressing the US to become more engaged in efforts by Britain, Germany, and France to negotiate an accord with Iran to end nuclear-weapons development. The US has so far limited its role to supporting the European initiative while periodically dangling the option of more sticks, such as sanctions or military strikes.
Prospects for concrete measures from Rice appear brighter as she takes the pulse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That's because Bush is signalling his desire to see the "moment of opportunity" translate into some signs of progress, some analysts say.
Rice's "immediate visit wouldn't be happening if the president didn't give her a cue, and a very different cue than the one he gave Powell in the first term," says Michael Hudson, head of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. At the same time, Rice appears to be taking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with less of the fixed pro-Israeli stance that influenced the administration's action in the first term, he says.
At the State Department this week, Rice emphasized the importance of pressing for a two-state solution that gives the Palestinians a viable and contiguous state. By picking up on requisites that President Bush has himself outlined, Rice appeared to be signaling that the US will be looking for hard choices and sacrifices from the Israelis as well as from the Palestinians.
Mr. Hudson says it won't be enough for Rice to simply take the region's pulse. "If the moment is to be seized, then her presence has to be more than symbolic. She should come back with something fairly tangible to show." That means steps from both sides, he says, including Israeli measures to ease the hardship of Palestinians.
Stephen Cohen, national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum in New York, says it is crucial for the US to take concrete steps of support toward Mr. Abbas before the "showdown" he faces in Palestinian parliamentary elections later this year.
"She has to start going beyond 'continuity' to talking about 'land continuity' when she talks about a Palestinian state," he says "so there's no suspicion the US is backing" the notion of what has been called a "Swiss cheese" state of small enclaves linked by bridges and tunnels.