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Rice's Risk

U.S. Secretay of State Condoleezza Rice briefs the media at the Chancellery in Berlin, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2005 following talks with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Rice said U.S. has saved American and European lives with international intelligence efforts.(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is now the public face of the George W. Bush administration's promise to play by the world's rules when it comes to fighting terrorism. So if they're broken, her credibility abroad, and perhaps at home, could be at stake.

Throughout Europe, there is suspicion and anger over reports of secret CIA interrogation centers and transport flights for suspected terrorists. It explains why Rice, during her trip to Europe last week, tapped some of the good will she has built up over nearly a year of intensive travel and outreach.

Rice met with government leaders nervous about what the United States may be doing on European soil. The Europeans also were aware that their constituents often take a dim view of the administration's policies on human rights and civil liberties.

At a NATO meeting Thursday, European leaders said Rice satisfied many of their concerns, even as several officials made plain their continued disagreement with Washington.

Rice assured allies that the United States does not condone or practice torture or interrogation practices that look very much like torture. She said no European airport or airspace was used to move suspected terrorists to places where they might be tortured.

Rice may be the only U.S. figure who could, as NATO Secretary-General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer said, clear the air in Europe. She used her first overseas trip as secretary, in February, to court Europeans angered by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and mistrustful of her boss, Mr. Bush.

That and other work paid off as European leaders offered polite support for Rice last week, even if backing from the public and press in Europe was in question.

Europeans are as skeptical as they were two years ago, or perhaps more so because of the CIA reports, said Robin Niblett, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Their distaste for Mr. Bush and Vice President Cheney has not abated, he said.

"I think her personal credibility has been tarnished or at least blended in with the negative impressions that they have of the president and vice president," Niblett said.

To get a sense of the level of mistrust of U.S. intentions, consider that it took the chief U.S. diplomat to state what sounds basic to Americans, for example, that U.S. policy is to abide by international treaties and U.S. laws.

It is also unusual for the secretary of state to be the voice of public voice for policies carried out by the military, CIA and the Justice Department.

Yet Rice had no real choice.