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March 22, 2005

Will it be more than a honeymoon?
Posted by Derek Chollet

By many measures, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is off to a strong start.  She has received a warm welcome from the State Department professionals.  Both Republicans and Democrats have praised her choices for key diplomatic positions, many of whom—Chris Hill, David Welch, Nick Burns—would have been up for senior jobs if John Kerry had won in November.  And on her recent trips throughout Europe and Asia, she got solid reviews from some very tough audiences.

But her success so far should not mask the tremendous challenges she faces—and the questions that remain about how she plans to meet them. 

Apart from Kissinger, Rice is the only person to have been both NSC Advisor and Secretary of State.  But her situation is most reminiscent of another Secretary of State to another President Bush, James A. Baker III. 

As a longtime friend of the 41st President, Baker’s authority was beyond question.  No one doubted that Baker spoke for the President.  The same goes for Secretary Rice today.

This much we know: like Baker, Rice will have exceptional influence, and therefore the State Department will have a more central role in foreign policy.  Yet this fact begs a far more important question: what will she use her influence for?

What we need from Secretary Rice is not more soaring rhetoric—we need action to meet immediate challenges, especially in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

During her recent trips to Europe and Asia, these issues turned out to be the skunks at the party.  In each of these cases American policy seems to be on autopilot—but it is hard to tell where they are heading.

It is truly distressing when one can say that of the three, our policy toward Iraq is clearest.  The recent elections gave reason for hope, but right now, there is no road map for the way forward, no sense of how the burden can be taken off American troops to provide for Iraq’s security.

Add to this the nuclear dangers from North Korea (which claims to have nuclear weapons) and Iran (who wants them), which aren’t getting any easier.  While Iran inches forward with its nuclear program, evidence mounts that North Korea has sold its nuclear materials to Libya, and possibly others.  For the past few years, the Bush Administration has not had an effective policy to handle these threats.  Part of the problem has been the Administration’s preoccupation with Iraq; another is that it has been too internally divided to reach consensus on way forward.  Instead, it has outsourced the problem to others.  This is yet another example of the Administration’s unilateralism: but rather than doing something alone, it is doing nothing alone. 

When it comes to handling these threats, Secretary Rice is right: it’s time for diplomacy.  It’s also time to have a policy.  How she meets these challenges will define how she is judged as Secretary of State.  One hopes that Rice will use her unique influence with the President—and the positive momentum she has created during her first weeks in office—to get the United States engaged.  Not just for her sake, but for ours.


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