Rumsfeld's Departure Is a Mixed Blessing for Rice

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U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in the Oval Office at the White House in October 2003

Three and a half years ago, as the U.S. prepared for war with Iraq, Condoleezza Rice went to President Bush with a complaint: Donald Rumsfeld wouldn't return her calls. At the time, Rumsfeld was the Administration's swaggering alpha male, a global celebrity whom even Bush called a "matinee idol"; Rice was the overwhelmed National Security Adviser, struggling to make herself heard above the din of colliding war-cabinet egos. "I know you won't talk to Condi," Bush told Rumsfeld, according to Bob Woodward's book State of Denial. "But you've got to talk to her."

That exchange provided hints of the feuds to come. Though both maintained the appearance of collegiality, Rice and Rumsfeld loathed each other. Throughout Woodward's book they are depicted squabbling over everything from how to handle detainees at Guantanamo Bay to whether the U.S. should guard oil pipelines in Iraq. As the war dragged on, their roles were reversed: By the end of the book it is Rumsfeld who is left to doodle in his notebook while Rice briefs reporters during a joint appearance in Baghdad. "Don's Don," Rice says, when Frank Miller, a top aide, calls Rumsfeld a bully. "We'll deal with it."

Now she has. Rumsfeld's departure means Rice has outlasted nearly all of her principal rivals within the Bush Administration; among current officials, only Vice President Dick Cheney can match Rice's influence over the President and his foreign policy. But every silver lining has a cloud. Having bemoaned, circumvented and ultimately usurped Rumsfeld's control over the U.S.'s failing Iraq policy, Rice is now the one responsible for figuring out how to clean it up.

She hasn't done much so far. In her early months as Secretary of State, Rice would sidestep questions about Iraq by stating that the presence of 150,000 troops on the ground meant it was mostly the Pentagon's problem. But that argument has become less persuasive as the violence has continued and all military options — short of a massive increase in U.S. troops — have proven ineffective in dealing with the insurgency. By now, even Bush's dog Barney knows that extricating ourselves from Iraq will require cutting some ugly political deals with an assortment of rogues, who might be willing to help stabilize Iraq in return for a piece of the country's future: Sunni Baathist rebels and Shi'ite Islamists, Iranian spooks and Arab strongmen. That, at least, is one option currently under consideration by the Iraq Study Group, the panel headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, whom Rice prodded Bush to appoint in part to clip Rumsfeld's wings.

But as America's top diplomat and the President's most trusted lieutenant, Rice can't simply stay on the sidelines. The Iraq situation demands an immediate, high-profile, region-wide push for an acceptable political settlement, followed by a U.S. withdrawal. But that won't be possible until Rice accepts that her legacy will hinge not on spreading democracy or stopping genocide or facing down Iran, but on whether she can limit the damage to U.S. power and prestige caused by the Adminstration's misadventure in Iraq. In her two years as Secretary of State, Rice's achievements have consisted mostly of projecting a more conciliatory U.S. image to the world and outflanking her rivals at home. She has pushed Bush to abandon talk of regime change and pursue diplomacy with Iran and North Korea. But those successes have more to do with process than with substance. And they have done nothing to resolve the question of whether Rice is truly willing to risk failure, and her reputation, in a concerted effort to get the U.S. out of a messy, misbegotten war. Rice no longer has to worry about whether Rumsfeld will return her calls. Now she has to come up with the answers on her own.