Rice Promises More of the Same

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On the Hill: Rice testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

"The time for diplomacy is now," Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice declared during Tuesday's confirmation hearings, adding that "our interaction with the rest of the world must be a conversation, not a monologue." While those sentiments may be taken as cause for comfort in the capitals of some of the many traditional U.S. allies alienated by the Bush administration's foreign policy, there was little in her answers to suggest the administration plans to alter any of the policies that had prompted the breakdown in relations in the first place.

Some European analysts take heart from the idea that while Colin Powell, whom many had regarded as a kindred spirit, had been a marginal figure in the Bush administration, Dr. Rice is widely known to have the President's ear and to speak for him. President Bush's trust and confidence in Rice give her a certain authority to speak on his behalf, in contrast to Powell whose authority was undermined in his first month on the job when President Bush publicly repudiated positions he'd articulated on North Korea. Rice's privileged relationship with the White House means that she'll take her access to the President's ear into her new job.

Truth-Telling Diplomacy

The problem, for the traditional allies in Europe, Asia and the Arab world that have become increasingly alarmed at the administration's policies, particularly in relation to the Muslim world, is that Dr. Rice is not Secretary Powell; she's one of the key architects of many of the policies they find most problematic, and gave no indication in hearings of being in any way chastened by the realities those policies have confronted, especially in Iraq.

Powell, by contrast, offered the President a harsh assessment of Iraq, which only reinforced his marginalization within the administration. In the January 12 edition of the Financial Times, administration insiders told of a recent encounter in which President Bush asked Powell for his view on the progress of the mission in Iraq, to which Powell reportedly answered, "We're losing." According to the paper's sources, Powell was then asked to leave.

The outgoing Secretary of State's gloomy assessment is shared not only by much of the military and intelligence establishment in Washington, but also by most U.S. allies abroad. It's certainly not shared by Dr. Rice, who steadfastly defended the decision to go to war and the postwar effort despite some tough questioning from senators of both parties. She did concede, eventually, that not all of the administration's decisions along the way had been good ones. But she showed no hesitation in affirming the correctness of the administration's decision to invade Iraq, proclaiming Saddam Hussein a "strategic threat" even after the U.S. has been forced to formally concede that he had no weapons of mass destruction.

The problem for the skeptical allies is not simply how the U.S. has run its occupation of Iraq, but with the strategic decision itself. Few of them share the belief that Saddam posed a strategic threat; even those who believed he may have had some stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons left over from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s also believed that he had been effectively contained as a threat to his neighbors, much less to the wider international community.

Britain's Tony Blair tends to acknowledge this fundamental divide by arguing that despite these differences, everyone can now agree that the U.S. side must win in Iraq. But the worldview Dr. Rice articulated throughout her confirmation hearings may be even more troubling to alienated allies than the specifics of Iraq. Her idea that the campaign against Islamist extremism and terrorism can be likened to the epic struggles of the Cold War and World War II is simply not widely accepted outside of Washington. Dr. Rice has previously sought to explain events in Iraq by comparing the situation there to that in Germany in the years immediately after World War II — a common conceptual approach among a number of U.S. officials involved in the troubled occupation, including former U.S. administrator J. Paul Bremer. But among the skeptical allies the idea of basing an Iraq strategy on the success of managing postwar Germany is taken as a sign of an inability in the Bush administration to grasp the specific nature and history of the problems it faces in Iraq, and in the Arab world more generally.

Why This Isn't Like 1954

The Cold War became an epic generational conflict precisely because all of the players on the international stage came to define themselves by their alignment with one camp or the other — it was the basic organizing principle of their foreign policy. But many countries that are working closely with the U.S. on the problem of international terrorism are not about to make this cooperation the organizing principle of their foreign policy, for the simple reason that they don't see the problem of terrorism as anything remotely approaching the geopolitical menace represented by the Axis powers in World War II, or the Soviet bloc in the half century that followed. The idea that the world changed on September 11 has less currency among U.S. allies than the Bush administration might like, and even Blair's Britain has entered 2005 proclaiming poverty, AIDS and global warming as foreign policy priorities. Also, many U.S. allies are more likely to see the Bush administration as exacerbating, rather than removing, the terror threat through its policies in the Middle East, particularly in relation to Israel and the Palestinians, and in relation to Iraq.

Dr. Rice may maintain that the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq does nothing to change the strategic rationale for the war, but for the allied governments who went against their own electorates in order to support the U.S. the failure to find the offending weapons, and the chaos that has characterized almost two years of occupation, are nothing short of catastrophic politically. If the U.S. had been vindicated by events, the size of its coalition of those willing to help out in Iraq would have grown; instead it continues to steadily shrink as countries pull their troops out.

Of course, Dr. Rice could not have been expected to answer the question, also posed by many allies, of when the U.S. plans to leave Iraq. The goals that have previously been defined as allowing for such a withdrawal may be years off, and the revision of those goals will be determined in no small part by the shape of the government that emerges after January 30. Ultimately, as she stressed, it will be up to Iraqis to determine when the U.S. leaves. And current U.S. intelligence estimates now reportedly suggest that the government elected on that day will, in fact, ask the U.S. to set a timetable for departure. That won't be because they believe that the benchmarks for departure as currently defined have been achieved, but instead because they believe Iraq won't be stabilized as long as U.S. forces remain there.

Rice's response to questions about torture will also have done little to assuage the increasing alarm, even among close allies such as Britain, over the U.S. handling of terror suspects at Guantanamo and elsewhere. And her tough talk on Iran in response to the suggestion by Republican senator Lincoln Chafee for greater engagement with Tehran will have raised alarm bells in Europe, particularly coming on a rising tide of media speculation about possible U.S. military action on Iran.

The Israel Question

For long-suffering allies, the single most encouraging emphasis coming from Dr. Rice will be the determination she expressed to seek a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during President Bush's second term. (Allies, and even the 9/11 Commission, have long warned that the ongoing conflict, and the unconditional U.S. support for Israel, impedes America's ability to achieve its goals in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.) While Dr. Rice's comments in this respect have been well-received, the tough policy choices required to achieve the goal of ending the conflict may yet prove disappointing to allies. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not simply about an absence of fighting; it's about drawing a political boundary between the two sides in order to create two states. The conflict is fundamentally about land and who owns and controls it, and to simply note that it's up to the two sides to agree on where to draw such a border misses the reality that while Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas insists on the 1967 borders as the basis for any two-state solution, Ariel Sharon's own ideas about the final borders between the two identities are literally miles apart from Abbas's. It will take a lot more than good intentions on the part of the U.S. and curbing terror attacks on the part of the Palestinians to achieve a solution.

Traditional allies won't be the only ones with questions following Dr. Rice's confirmation hearing. The State Department staff who have been told to gather on Friday to welcome their new boss will certainly be keen to understand just what she meant by her call on them to learn new skills in pursuit of what she called "transformational diplomacy," adding that U.S. diplomats will need to become more active in "spreading democracy and fighting terror." "Spreading democracy" has not exactly been the top priority of diplomats, who by definition tend to avoid activism. Getting them to embrace it now is just one of Rice's many challenges