Condoleezza Rice will be familiar with all of the front-burner foreign policy issues she has to tackle in her new job as secretary of state because they are the same ones she's been dealing with as national security advisor to the president. That's both good news and bad news.
From the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq and concern about upcoming elections scheduled for January to ongoing concerns about Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs to the renewed effort to finalize a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, Rice will be trying to solve problems that have vexed the administration for the past four years.
She has been criticized for poorly managing the inter-agency process as NSC advisor, although people familiar with her decision-making style object to such conclusions. One administration official pointed out that the two jobs call for different management styles. At the NSC, Dr. Rice's job involved collating the views of various agencies — often with competing interests — and the blending of many positions that would eventually be taken to the President for a decision. At State, this official points out, the secretary has to manage from the top down.
This might actually be easier, the argument goes, because there are more direct lines of accountability.
It's assumed that President George W. Bush's appointment of Rice comes because he wants someone who knows the policy and knows how to present the president's case to the world. But there are other factors to consider. Does the President see his re-election as a mandate to push his no-compromise policies? Or is he more interested in making accommodation to others and achieving solutions? How prominent a place does his legacy take in the policy-making equation?
Mr. Bush has said he intends to go to Europe after his inauguration in an attempt to soothe the bruised feelings of European leaders, especially in France, Germany and Russia. Dr. Rice will find that part of her new task as well. Rice's foreign policy background is in Russian (formerly Soviet) affairs, and Europe is familiar territory for her, even though she does not enjoy the same level of respect as her predecessor did.
In the last year or so, Rice, at the president's direction, has become the administration's point-person on Israeli-Palestinian issues, developing a close working relationship with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's top aide, Dov Weisglass. Since Mr. Bush has now made public commitments to put more effort into Middle East peacemaking, Rice can be expected to keep the lead as the administration's top negotiator on this issue.
Iran and North Korea present different problems, and different potential solutions. Because Washington has had to focus on Iraq, it has turned to allies to take the lead on these two hot spots. The Chinese have taken the lead on talks with North Korea and the approach has been multilateral, the so-called "6 party talks" with Japan, South Korea and Russia, in addition to China and the U.S. sitting down at a table with North Koreans.
A little progress has been made, but the North Koreans balked before attending the last scheduled round of talks in September, apparently preferring to wait on the outcome of the American elections. Now that they know Mr. Bush will be around for another four years, it remains a bit unclear if this multilateral approach will continue under China's leadership or if another formula will have to be found for pursuing the goal of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
As for Iran's effort to develop nuclear weapons, it's been the Europeans on whom Washington has relied. French, German and British envoys have been dealing with the IAEA monitors and negotiating with the mullahs in Tehran and appear to have made progress. Whether it will be enough for Washington, especially if Mr. Bush takes a tough stand, is an open question. Washington might get an indication soon how things are going because Secretary of State Colin Powell will be in meetings next week with Iran's foreign minister on future moves concerning Iraq. No bi-lateral meeting is yet scheduled but it it is possible this opening could be seized upon and the groundwork laid for diplomatic efforts that Dr. Rice could pursue.
On these and other issues which will inevitably arise, Dr. Rice's chief asset will be the one coin of the realm Colin Powell did not possess in large quantity: access to and confidence from the man in the Oval office. Leaders around the world understand this. This alone should assure Rice of warm receptions wherever she goes. It does not mean, however, the rest of the world will roll over and be dictated to by Mr. Bush's team.
By Charles M. Wolfson