At the table of war, a trusted voice of caution

Of all the photographs Americans have seen this past month, one is particularly telling - if not exactly memorable. It's of President Bush and three advisers, seated at a conference table at Camp David and facing a video screen linked to his security team in Washington.

The picture illustrates the pivotal role that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice is playing in the president's war cabinet.

Unlike the secretaries of Defense and State, Ms. Rice is not a digital image. She is sitting right next to Mr. Bush. "When they turn the [video screen] off, Condi is still in the room. She has the last word," says Michael McFaul, a colleague of Rice's from her years as provost at Stanford University.

In this time of war, the White House is tight-lipped about who is recommending what, but observers see Rice's imprimatur on policies so far.

The president has pointedly said he does not want the US to install a new regime in Afghanistan, which matches Rice's aversion to "nation building." He's stressed patience in rooting out the terrorists, perhaps a reflection not only of the influence of Secretary of State Colin Powell, but of Rice, who has described herself as "cautious."

Of course, the commander-in-chief is in close touch with his entire war team. He sees them daily, at morning White House meetings that he chairs himself. But when those individuals return to their agencies, it is Rice who stays at the White House, in a spacious corner office just steps from the president.

As head of the National Security Council, which is akin to the president's foreign-policy think tank, she acts as a conduit of defense, diplomatic, and intelligence information to the president. She was the one who informed Mr. Bush Sunday that bombing had begun - and helped craft his speech to the nation that day.

She also coordinates the various council members, including the secretaries of Defense, State, and the vice president. Since Sept. 11, the team now gathers daily in the late afternoon - in person or by phone - to review progress and prepare for their meeting with Bush the next day.

But Karen Hughes, counselor to the president, says Rice is not merely a coordinator. "She brings people together, but she also makes recommendations."

And America's policies toward terrorism quite likely have reflected those recommendations, says Mr. McFaul. "The Condi I know is very prudent. Moderate's not the right word. She's thoughtful, she's not going to do things rashly. And the fact that we slowed down [in the beginning], that sounds familiar to me."

She's also very tough, and driven. Having grown up in segregated Birmingham, Ala., Rice has said she defended herself against racism by being twice, if not three times, as educated and prepared as whites. An accomplished pianist, she could read music before she could read words, graduated cum laude at age 19, and joined the Stanford faculty at 25.

Her toughness was borne out earlier this year as she defended the administration's plans for a missile shield and the scrapping of the Kyoto climate treaty in the face of stiff international objections.

If Rice has a liability, say observers like McFaul, it is that her expertise is the Soviet Union and cold-war politics, not terrorism and the Mideast. She has not been in the thick of battle planning as Gulf-War veterans Mr. Powell and Dick Cheney have been. She would feel at home in Moscow, not Kabul or Islamabad. She speaks Russian fluently, not Pushtun.

But in a war that's hardly conventional, and with other, more-seasoned advisers in the room, that's not such a critical disadvantage, says a former government official. "She's smart enough and has a very close relationship with the president, and she's not completely without experience," the former official says.

In fact, those who worked with Rice in the first Bush administration argue that her Soviet experience does bear on today's war on terrorism.

Not only is Russia an important coalition partner at this time, but as former President Bush's top Soviet adviser from 1989-91, she dealt with a crisis situation on the other side of the globe that was constantly shifting. She also ran a secret task force charged with worst-case contingency planning in the event of a total Soviet collapse.

"She has crisis experience," says Philip Zelikow, who co-authored a book with Rice and worked with her on former President Bush's European team. "She was at the epicenter of some of the most fast-moving, turbulent, and complicated diplomacy of the last 20 years."

At the same time, Rice's mentor and boss, then-national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, involved her informally in the Gulf-War discussions. And it's often overlooked that an early stop on her government career path was at the Pentagon, working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff on nuclear strategy.

Meanwhile, her professional background may not include terrorism per se, but no one else in the administration has much experience with it either, Sandy Berger, former national security adviser to Bill Clinton, has noted. Mr. Berger spent considerable time briefing Rice on terrorism during the transition.

Her expertise - and her longstanding friendship with both Presidents Bushes - made her an easy choice as foreign-policy tutor for the Texas governor in his presidential campaign. The personal relationship is important, says Mr. Zelikow, because "in stress, you [the president] turn to people you know you can trust."

For Bush, loyalty and teamwork are everything, and so far, Rice is getting high marks for keeping the war team running relatively smoothly. Certainly it helps that most of the players, having worked closely together in previous administrations, know each other.

That harmony could turn discordant, however, with the entrance of a new player. This week, Bush appointed former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as director of the new Office of Homeland Security. His office, too, is just steps from the president's, and he, too, is a longtime friend.

Mr. Ridge's and Rice's roles will overlap, says White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, though he says this is by design.

Theoretically, Ridge could be seen as competition to Rice. But yesterday, it was the team that was on display, as the two jointly announced the naming of two more terrorism advisers: a director for combating terrorism and the president's cyberspace security adviser.

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