National security adviser Condoleezza Rice flew into Jerusalem on June 28, 2003, and immediately rushed to a meeting on the West Bank with Palestinian officials. During the session at a Jericho hotel, a rapt Rice watched a flashy PowerPoint presentation on a security fence being built by the Israelis that had begun to encroach on Palestinian lands.
The report showed a concrete wall dividing the homes of Palestinian farmers from their fields and depicted a proposed route that would leave most of the Palestinians inside the fenced areas but 91 percent of the West Bank settlements outside.
The security barrier had not been a major factor in U.S.-Israeli relations. But the next day, Rice -- who grew up in the segregated South -- met with the cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and shocked the officials by confronting them over the barrier's proposed route. She asked Sharon to redraw it in a way that showed greater sensitivity to Palestinians.
The incident offers insights into Rice's style as she prepares for confirmation hearings tomorrow to replace Colin L. Powell as secretary of state. If confirmed, Rice would move from inside the White House to chief spokesman for U.S. foreign policy.
Although she made frequent television appearances to promote the administration's agenda, she has largely operated behind the scenes in the first term and made few solo trips overseas, receiving mixed reviews for her management of the clash of personalities and ideologies of Bush's top foreign policy advisers.
"Now her challenge is not to just deal with strong and different points of view and coordinate them; she is now one of them," Powell told National Public Radio last week.
U.S. officials and foreign diplomats say Rice is often eloquent and charming, but as the dispute over the security barrier shows, she can be direct and blunt in private with foreign officials when necessary. She also appears willing to act on new information and keep her options flexible.
"She is perfectly capable of altering a position when presented with new information," said Coit D. Blacker, a Democrat who worked for former president Bill Clinton but also is a close friend of Rice. "She believes that it's better to make a bad decision than no decision at all, as she's likely to get a second cut at it. She is not comfortable wallowing in debate."
Rice's own foreign policy views are still somewhat unclear, even to administration insiders who say she rarely tipped her hand during internal debates. At the confirmation hearing, Rice plans to sketch out her vision for the State Department and U.S. foreign policy in her opening statement, U.S. officials said. In a road map of her early priorities, she plans to especially emphasize the promotion of democracy in the Middle East -- a key presidential goal; reform of the United States' efforts at public diplomacy; Middle East peace; and confronting the worldwide spread of HIV-AIDS.
Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who was Rice's mentor and first brought her into government during the administration of George H.W. Bush, said Rice, who is expected to be easily confirmed, may face a tough transition from being an inside player. "When you are simply making policy in the abstract, you have to be concerned with how others see it, but you are not actually in the job of going out and rustling up support," he said. "That's a different way of approaching people. You have to get them to like something they are not very disposed to like."
Scowcroft added that Rice may do well because she can be "really charming." But he said that unlike Henry A. Kissinger, the last national security adviser to become secretary of state, Rice does not have the same breadth of foreign policy expertise or international contacts. "She's very good in Russia and the Soviet Union, good in Europe, but it tapers off after that. . . . For him, it was a less-abrupt transition from national security adviser to secretary of state."
White House records show that Rice made six trips by herself in the first term -- three that included stops in Moscow, one to London, one to Asia and one to the Middle East.
But Blacker, director of the Stanford Institute for International Studies, said that based on her experience as Stanford provost, "it will be a fairly seamless transition, taking the staff hat off and putting the principal hat on." He said she successfully managed both the inside and outside roles of being Stanford's chief administrative officer.
"Condi has never had any problem between the inside and outside role," Blacker said. "A lot of the time provosts will drop the ball on the outside role. But Condi didn't."