Monday, May. 08, 2006

Condoleezza Rice

You could see something very special in the young lady in 1986 when she interned for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What was there went beyond ambition and her already formidable presence and steely persistence; it was an absolute will to master whatever she encountered. Condoleezza Rice conquered the piano as a young girl and the complicated, controversial field of Soviet military affairs after receiving her Ph.D.

As happens with those marked with ability and presence, the lords of the mountain reached down to anoint her as National Security Adviser to President Bush and now as his Secretary of State. After she became Secretary, even former critics lauded her for reinvigorating U.S. diplomacy, though they questioned whether she could sculpt a much needed grand strategy. She responded with one built around promoting democracy worldwide, without compromise, as a cure for everything from terrorism to economic downturns. But this strategy already hangs by hairs in Iraq and a tumultuous Middle East.

Her reputation will turn on how she handles problems from hell like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea. Could even Bismarck or Kissinger call down lightning from the mountaintop to tame those vipers? To her great credit, she has assembled a first-rate staff and keeps traveling and talking. And how well she talks, eyes sometimes blazing fiercely when she is attacked. Rice, 51, has less than three years to reverse the many mistakes of a shaky Administration and master the job designed by the lords of the mountain for the history books.

Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City