War Stories

Rice Capades

What the secretary of state has done right, and wrong, in her first six months.

Rice, Rice baby. Click image to expand.
Rice, Rice baby

To mark the six-month anniversary of Condoleezza Rice’s ascension to the seventh floor of Foggy Bottom, the media have poured on the accolades: headlines touting “The Condi Doctrine“; comparisons to George Marshall; recitations of her demanding workout; tributes to her “perfectionist drive”; and summonings of superlatives—“the most traveled secretary of state” (at least since James Baker), “the most powerful secretary of state in decades.”

One category of adjective is missing from these encomia: Howgood is she at this job?

Certainly she’s been much better—more active, more ambitious, more victorious in bureaucratic battle—than many (and I count myself among them) predicted she’d be. A list of her accomplishments to date is considerable:

  • She reopened nuclear negotiations with North Korea, even authorizing bilateral talks, which George W. Bush had adamantly refused to conduct all through his first term as president.
  • She persuaded Bush to endorse similar (if less promising) negotiations that Britain, France, and Germany had initiated with Iran, which he had also vigorously opposed.
  • She crafted the terms of a United Nations resolution to investigate war crimes in Sudan, a measure that first-term Bush had resisted.
  • She dropped the campaign—which had been launched with great verve by Vice President Dick Cheney—to replace Mohamed elBaradei as chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency and then got U.S. intelligence agencies to resume briefing IAEA officials, a practice that had also been discontinued in the first term.
  • As a prerequisite to all the above accomplishments, she staved off Cheney’s intense efforts to appoint his protégé, John Bolton, as deputy secretary of state and implicitly acknowledged Bolton’s unsuitability for a concession prize—U.N. ambassador—by assuring Democratic opponents that he would be carefully “supervised.”

Yet these feats are only stirring because of who she’s working for. They are the sorts of things—conducting diplomacy, entering negotiations, dealing with international organizations—that secretaries of state in most administrations do routinely. They (and, by extension, Rice herself) are seen as remarkable only because this administration, in its first term of office, so rarely engaged in such activity and so often and openly disparaged it.

It’s as if an architectural firm simply stopped work for four years and then hired a new superviser who started signing some contracts again, erected a few nice houses, designed a couple of intriguing office buildings—and, as a result, was hailed as the next Frank Lloyd Wright.

Rice has the president’s trust to a degree that no secretary of state has enjoyed in more than a half-century. (Here is where comparisons to Marshall are apt.) As a result, she’s been allowed to rev up the long-dormant machinery of diplomacy in a way that her predecessor, Colin Powell, never could.

But when it comes to the fruits of diplomacy, the substance of policy, the picture is still hazy. In a recent Washington Post profile, Rice described her philosophy as “practical idealism” one of those terms that sounds good but means nothing. The world is adrift; the Cold War structure has shattered, a new order has yet to form. The likes of George Marshall, whom Rice explicitly emulates—or such statesmen of earlier interregnums as Bismarck, Metternich, and, in his own way, Henry Kissinger—were, for better or worse (and sometimes both), grand strategists. Condoleezza Rice has so far proved to be a highly able tactician. This is better than what we had before, but don’t clear a space on the great diplomats’ mantel just yet.