The Rice era: dignified but bare-knuckled

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Rummy, that old war horse whose brilliant military campaign vanquished Saddam Hussein, has been muzzled. Karl, the backroom architect of the presidential reelection campaign that obliterated John Kerry, has been promoted.

And Condi is the rising star of the Bush second term, unleashed to manage with dignified but bare-knuckled diplomacy the president's international agenda.

The charm offensive against Gaullist hauteur and Teutonic disdain is already under way. There has been hand kissing in Paris, and it is "Condi" and "Michel" (Michel Barnier) between foreign ministers. In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was full of "wow" after his meeting with Condi.

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But make no mistake about it, Condoleezza Rice, this slender, cultured, sophisticated vicar (or should it be vicaress?) of President Bush's foreign policy is no diplomatic cream puff. A hard-line adviser to George Bush even before he became president, she is extraordinarily close to him and among the most fervent devotees and articulators of his policies.

While Dr. Rice's predecessor as secretary of State, Colin Powell, stepped up and saluted the president, he had private reservations about some of the administration's directions. Not so with Rice. On policy, there is no daylight between her and the president. As one diplomat put it: "There may be more tact in Bush's second term, and fewer troops and bombs, but foreign policy will be just as aggressive and ambitious."

And while Mr. Powell's stature could have made him a presidential contender, Rice is a Bush loyalist with no known pretensions to the presidency (tempting though it might be to contemplate a contest between Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton).

Rice's mandate is to garner support from allies for the war against terrorism, isolate countries that support terrorism, and aggressively promote democracy, which ideally would shrink terrorism's breeding grounds. As she said, significantly, in Paris: "The Arab people can no longer be isolated from the prosperity and human dignity that freedom brings."

Much of her focus must be directed at this Islamic world. That means concentrating on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the outcome of which is significant in shaping Arab opinion of the US, as well as assuring the progress of democracy in Iraq, which if successful could be a beacon to countries throughout the Middle East.

In the case of negotiations between Palestinians and Israel, the administration is offering greater, but careful involvement. Washington is encouraged by the moderate steps being taken by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But the confrontation has gone on for years, and there have been many disappointments on the road to an accommodation. Thus while Rice met with each of them separately on her first trip to the region, and stressed US commitment to a settlement, she didn't stay to participate in their face-to-face summit in Sharm el-Sheikh.

In Iraq, the stakes are high for the US, for Secretary Rice, and the Arab world.

Majority Shiites are maneuvering with the minority Kurds and Sunnis following elections in January to the interim national assembly. It is the democratic process in action, although nobody can tell at this stage how it will play out, or just what form of democracy the Iraqis will embrace. The US has already expended much blood and treasure in Iraq to overthrow Hussein and free the Iraqi people. It must keep its military there long enough to provide security for a legitimate new government. Rice must deftly manage the US role in this political process.

Syria looks as though it may now be high on her agenda. Syria maintains it had nothing to do with the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister, but many Lebanese doubt that. So does the Bush administration, which has recalled its ambassador as part of a stiff new warning to the Damascus regime.

Then there is Iran, which says it is not developing nuclear weapons, but probably is. And North Korea, which says it has them, but maybe doesn't.

Diplomacy is in train in both cases to try to persuade them to abandon their nuclear options. It is not going particularly well.

Rice says no military action is planned against Iran. The military options against North Korea are limited. But beyond multilateral diplomacy, there are various options including action by the United Nations, multilateral or unilateral sanctions, and, in the case of North Korea, quarantine and isolation.

With such challenges ahead, Bush's second-term secretary of State seems sure to play a critical role under the international spotlight.

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

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