Condoleezza Rice had an interesting office visitor on Monday -- none other than her old mentor and the nation's realist in chief, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. It was the first serious chat they've had after many months of strained relations, and it may be a symbol for a subtle shift that has been taking place at Rice's State Department.
While President Bush continues to talk about "staying the course" in Iraq, the nation's top diplomats and military commanders have in fact been changing the course this year to fit changing circumstances. They are planning on significant reductions of U.S. troops once a permanent Iraqi government is chosen in the Dec. 15 elections. To help build a political framework for that government, U.S. officials privately went so far as to endorse the call for a "withdrawal timetable" that was issued recently by Iraqi leaders.
What is intriguing is that the administration's emerging position isn't all that different from the critique offered last week by Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden. Both are talking about cutting U.S. troop strength, relying on Iraqi security forces and brokering a compromise among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. That's as it should be: When the nation is at war, there should be rough consensus between the two parties about strategy.
Rice stands at the intersection of the Iraq debate. Watching her try to find a balance among Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites, not to mention Democrats and Republicans, I am reminded that in her younger days, she was a figure skater. She learned to keep her balance on quarter-inch blades as she moved around the rink. Remaining upright required finesse and a little luck -- with that tiny, quarter-inch margin of error.
Rice has undergone a remarkable transformation since she took over the State Department early this year. Gone is the tight, moralizing style she often displayed as national security adviser. Leaving the White House seems to have given her more space, emotionally and intellectually. She's more relaxed, expansive, curious, funny. And she has proved increasingly effective. Her hold-the-plane personal diplomacy two weeks ago in Jerusalem produced a breakthrough agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on Gaza border crossings.
The Gaza agreement was Rice's first real "Kissingerian" moment, and in some of her public comments, she's sounding like a realist in the Kissinger-Scowcroft tradition. The idealistic, belligerent approach of the neoconservatives isn't much in evidence in her State Department. Colleagues say that she's running the department with confidence and that she's as good at administering her own agency as she was bad at coordinating interagency disputes when she was national security adviser.
Bush doesn't do nuance on foreign policy, but that's not so at Rice's State Department. Working closely with the French government, she has managed a deft policy on Lebanon and Syria that has applied pressure on the Syrian regime while seeking to avoid isolating the Syrian people. The Syrian government is moving toward cooperation with the U.N. investigation of the death of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and Rice believes Damascus is also doing better in controlling terrorist infiltration into Iraq.
Rice's biggest test as secretary of state will be Iran, the center of the volcano that has been shaking the Middle East for the past 30 years. Here again she is pursuing a policy more nuanced than administration rhetoric might suggest. While maintaining a hard line toward the mullahs in Tehran, she is also trying to draw Iran into a network of cooperation on regional security issues. Rice has authorized her ambassadors in Iraq and Afghanistan to meet with their Iranian counterparts to discuss overlapping interests. Meanwhile, the United States is encouraging neighboring states in the Persian Gulf to maintain an open dialogue with Iran.
In an administration that has been in the doldrums lately, to put it mildly, Rice has been an unusual success story. The figure skater who learned to stay upright on a thin blade is gliding into a perilous new year as the problems of Iraq, Iran and Syria converge. Does she truly speak for this administration on foreign policy? Can she make the Iraq balancing act work? The next few months will give us the measure of the Bush administration's second-term star.