Washington loves nothing better than the "who's up, who's down?" power game.
Currently the buzz is that the team of Rice and Gates is up. And having supplanted the team of Cheney and Rumsfeld, it looks like Rice and Gates will dominate President Bush's foreign policy team for the last two years of his presidency.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are cast in every bit of the conservative mold as is Mr. Bush. Dr. Rice is a hard-line Russia expert. Mr. Gates is a former Central Intelligence Agency director. Their pro-Bush credentials are impeccable. Neither can be accused of any pandering to despots and terrorists. But gone now is the arrogance of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and apparently fading is the influence of Vice President Dick Cheney and the "take no prisoners" philosophy in foreign policy.
Refreshing, for instance, is the firm and transparent way in which Gates has handled the scandal over the Walter Reed military hospital. The Washington Post exposed a litany of neglect and poor management in the hospital that handles many of the wounded American servicemen from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Having visited privately with them, Mr. Rumsfeld is as emotional as anybody over the returning injured. But whereas Rumsfeld, confronted by scandal and bad news, was more inclined to circle the wagons and tough it out, Gates moved swiftly to remedy the situation, not even waiting for the results from departmental and congressional investigations. He fired both the general commanding Walter Reed and the secretary of the Army, Francis Harvey, and ordered swift improvements at the hospital.
Before he resigned last year, Rumsfeld did much to modernize and streamline the Army. He oversaw a brilliant, fast-moving military campaign that rid the world of Saddam Hussein. But he sadly misjudged the number of troops necessary to occupy Iraq and was guilty of poor planning in carrying out the country's postwar reconstruction.
Meanwhile Rice, with the benefit of Bush's great trust in her, has been able to skillfully modify major aspects of the administration's foreign policy. While supporting the president's goals of thwarting the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran and fostering freedom in the Arab world, she has been able to shift the US from a confrontational and sometimes threatening unilateral style to the diplomacy of engagement, often in a multilateral framework.
For example, where the Bush administration once ruled out direct negotiations with North Korea, they are now taking place – after long and difficult talks involving other nations such as China, Britain, and France that brought pressure to bear on Pyongyang.
Similarly, the US will soon engage in a meeting of Iraq and its neighbors designed to discuss stability in the war-torn region. Iran will be one of the participants, and State Department officials have not ruled out the possibility of US-Iranian discussions on the margins of that conference.
It has not escaped the notice of diplomatic observers and politicians that the prospects of engagement with both North Korea and Iran crystallized at a time when Mr. Cheney was outside the US on assignments for the president.
Cheney has maintained with bulldog tenacity that direct US contact with rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran should not take place until those nations have substantially modified their wayward ways – i.e., abandoned their respective quests for nuclear weapons.
The new approach in dealing directly with North Korea and Iran has spawned criticism from ultraconservatives such as John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, but Rice enjoys the continuing confidence of the president.
Although she cuts a slender figure, Rice is no fragile infighter in Washington's bureaucratic wars. Reportedly, the president once had to order Rumsfeld to return her calls. She effectively fenced in Mr. Bolton at the UN, although he sought higher roles. She now is apparently neutralizing some of Cheney's harder-line positions.
In all of these moves, Rice is taking advantage of changing conditions in the fortunes of adversarial nations such as North Korea and Iran.
The Pyonyang regime is beset by awesome economic problems and can well use the goods and favors that are being offered in return for ceasing its production of nuclear weapons.
Iran is beset by a restless populace that is souring on its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He promised jobs and prosperity but has defaulted on both.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is currently a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.