At State, Rice Takes Control of Diplomacy

Rice shifts her earphones in a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
Rice shifts her earphones in a news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. (By Emilio Morenatti -- Associated Press)
By Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 31, 2005

Three weeks after taking office, Condoleezza Rice hosted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and their Japanese counterparts at the State Department. When Rumsfeld began to speak, Rice gently cut him off. The message was clear: I'll take the lead, Don. Both Japanese and U.S. officials noted the decisive nudge.

Now six months on the job, Rice has clearly wrested control of U.S. foreign policy. The once heavy-handed Defense Department still weighs in, but Rice wins most battles -- in strong contrast to her predecessor, Colin L. Powell. White House staff is consulted, but Rice designed the distinctive framework for the administration's second-term foreign policy.

In short order, she has demonstrated a willingness to bend on tactics to accommodate the concerns of allies without ceding on broad principles, what she calls "practical idealism." She also conducts a more aggressive personal diplomacy, breaking State Department records for foreign travel and setting up diplomatic tag teams with top staff on urgent issues.

U.S. foreign policy has always had "a streak of idealism, which means that we care about values, we care about principle," Rice said in an interview last week. "The responsibility, then, of all of us is to take policies that are rooted in those values and make them work on a day-to-day basis so that you're always moving forward toward a goal."

It is too early to know whether the new tactics will ultimately bring results, and many of Rice's steps so far this year have been limited to overtures or temporary

fixes. But those have at the least created momentum where before there was deadlock.

On North Korea, Rice got the prickly Pyongyang government back to six-nation talks last week on nuclear disarmament by publicly recognizing it as a "sovereign state," then empowering her top aide on East Asia to repeatedly meet privately with the North Koreans -- extended contact forbidden during Powell's era.

On Iran, Rice agreed to offer incentives -- allowing the Islamic republic to apply for eventual membership in the World Trade Organization and buy badly needed spare parts for aging passenger aircraft -- in exchange for a European pledge to support U.N. Security Council action if talks fail. Powell had trouble just getting the White House to drop language including Iran in an "axis of evil," which implied eventual confrontation.

With India, she brokered a deal to sell peaceful nuclear technology that will cement U.S.-India relations, but which may also risk undermining the treaty to halt nuclear weapons proliferation.

On Sudan, Rice found middle ground between the administration's rejection of the International Criminal Court and U.N. efforts to launch a war crimes investigation into violence in the Darfur region. The State Department helped draft a U.N. resolution supporting an international probe that would pass -- but on which Washington could abstain.

In the interview, Rice said she discovered on her first European trip that, particularly on the Iran issue, "somehow we'd gotten into a position where it was the United States that was the problem . . . that was not a good place to be." So she formulated action that put the onus back on Iran and, later, North Korea.

"Sometimes the power of diplomacy is not just saying no, but figuring out a way to protect your interests and principles to help the other guy -- or in this case the other countries -- move forward as well," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said. "It is the kind of diplomacy some of our critics had felt we were no longer capable of, that we were a kind of superpower saying 'yes' or 'no' but not anywhere in between."

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