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Rice Gives Diplomacy New Focus

Secretary of State Reshapes State Department in White House Image

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page A22

SEOUL, March 19 -- Since becoming secretary of state two months ago, Condoleezza Rice has transformed the language and image of U.S. diplomacy, offering a relentless and consistent message that has turned the State Department into an adjunct of the White House communications machine.

"We are not going to turn a blind eye to the human desire for freedom anywhere in the world," Rice told students Saturday at Tokyo's Sophia University. Later, after flying to a military command center buried in a mountain south of Seoul, near the North Korean border, she hailed U.S. and South Korean troops as being on the "front lines of freedom."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice greets students from a women's university on her arrival in Seoul. Rice hailed U.S. and South Korean troops as being on the "front lines of freedom." (Ahn Young-joon -- AP)

Similarly, speaking to U.S. troops in Afghanistan on Thursday, Rice declared, "Desire for freedom is spreading. It spread to Iraq. It spread to Lebanon. It's spreading throughout the Middle East."

Colin L. Powell, Rice's predecessor, had forged an identity as an independent operator, representing the views of the State Department in the foreign policy debate within the administration. That attitude irritated many officials in the White House, who believed that the president's promotion of democracy was viewed skeptically inside the agency.

Now, the former national security adviser is bringing the White House's views to the State Department -- and by extension to the rest of the world.

The promotion of democracy -- and an unabashed promotion of American values and ideas -- is a theme Rice sounds in every news conference, interview and speech she gives. She told the troops in Kabul, "It's in the finest tradition of America that power comes with compassion . . . that strength comes with a belief in values."

During her first European trip and now her tour of Asia this week, Rice has also delivered major policy addresses designed to place President Bush's vision within a larger strategic framework. Powell appeared uncomfortable giving speeches that articulated grand themes, but aides say Rice is eager to give such addresses, believing that they help explain the administration's positions and advance her diplomatic goals.

In Paris, for instance, she gave a well-received speech that aides say helped lay the groundwork for an agreement with European officials on confronting Iran over its nuclear programs. Then, in Tokyo on Saturday, she outlined a new U.S. vision of Japan's increasing importance as a global power and challenged China to work harder to "embrace some form of open and generally representative government."

Given the White House's sensitivity to the power of media images, Rice's political staff pays particular attention to the shots of her that are shown around the globe -- and, more importantly, in the United States..

Rice has taken other steps to bring the State Department under her control. She has appointed diplomats to some key posts, but she has also given her seventh-floor staff more power. Powell traveled overseas with State Department professionals, leaving his political staff at home. On her tour of Asia this week, Rice brought along her chief of staff, her "counselor" (adviser-without-portfolio Philip D. Zelikow) and a senior media adviser, as well as a speechwriter.

Rice has also lectured her senior staff about the perils of media leaks, causing normally talkative officials to speak carefully, in hushed tones. Several officials said shortly after becoming secretary, she devoted a half-hour senior staff meeting entirely to a discussion of a problematic newspaper article on North Korea policy -- and word quickly spread through Foggy Bottom to limit contacts with reporters.

With steely discipline, Rice refuses to address questions from reporters that might detract from the well-honed talking points prepared in advance. Any number of carefully phrased questions on a subject will yield almost exactly the same answer. Indeed, she often ignores inquiries that raise uncomfortable issues about the administration's democracy campaign -- such as whether she questioned Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, on when he would abide by his promise to give up his army post.

Powell was often responsive to reporters' questions but tended to paper over differences with other countries. Some Bush administration officials say they believe Powell's upbeat answers muddled diplomatic signals and sometimes exposed policy differences within the administration.

Rice has not hesitated to send stern diplomatic messages to countries that displease her -- or, as she might put it, are on the wrong side of freedom. She canceled a trip to the Middle East last month because she was annoyed that Egypt had not responded to her request to release an imprisoned opposition political figure; he was released last week. The day after former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed in a bomb blast, she withdrew the U.S. ambassador from Syria and suggested additional sanctions might be taken under the Syrian Accountability Act -- a law that was viewed skeptically in Powell's State Department.

On Sunday, Rice plans to attend a Palm Sunday church service in Beijing. The visit to the Gangwashi Protestant Church is being described as a private visit by a deeply religious woman, but it also has significant political implications, especially since Rice criticized China's lack of religious freedom in Tokyo on Saturday.

But the tough approach has also backfired. The North Korean government has claimed it pulled out of disarmament talks because Rice had labeled it an "outpost of tyranny," just days before Bush announced in his inauguration speech that he would fight tyranny around the globe. The North Korean government has said it will not return to the talks until she apologizes. Rice has refused, but she has also not repeated the statement.

In another striking departure, Rice has brought new media sophistication to an agency that long prided itself on its focus on policy, not image. She has dropped Powell's practice of talking to reporters in front of the glass doors of the State Department after he escorted foreign officials to their cars. Instead, she brings reporters upstairs to the more visually striking Benjamin Franklin room, reminiscent of rooms in the White House, where she sits with foreign dignitaries in front of a fireplace.

Unlike Powell, who disliked tourism, Rice often schedules a quick visit to a cultural landmark because, aides said, she believes it demonstrates respect and an interest in a country's heritage. The pictures are more evocative than typical images of a Powell trip -- photographs of officials standing at news conferences and the secretary getting on and off his government jet.

When Rice took a half-hour tour Wednesday of the 16th-century Humayun's Tomb in New Delhi, the model for the Taj Mahal, her entourage was directed to move out of camera range so there would be no background distraction in the photographs. The pictures of Rice touring the grounds appeared on the front pages of many Indian newspapers, and across the United States as well.

In Japan, she was greeted by a former sumo wrestler, Konishiki, one of Japan's most popular sports personalities. The image of the gigantic wrestler -- who topped 600 pounds as a professional -- hugging a woman easily one-quarter his size was featured on morning television news programs in the United States.

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