Condoleezza Rice: Her master's voice

As America's Secretary of State, she will be the most powerful woman on earth. A daughter of the segregated South, she has excelled at everything she has turned her hand to: she is a piano-playing, sports-loving, foreign affairs specialist who has the trust and friendship of George Bush. But just how good is she?
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Had 70,000 citizens of the state of Ohio voted Kerry rather than Bush a fortnight ago, then she might today be lobbying hard to become commissioner of the National Football League or of the Women's National Basketball Association. Instead, she is brushing up her lines for the Senate hearings that, barring some unforeseeable disaster, will shortly confirm her as America's 67th Secretary of State.

Had 70,000 citizens of the state of Ohio voted Kerry rather than Bush a fortnight ago, then she might today be lobbying hard to become commissioner of the National Football League or of the Women's National Basketball Association. Instead, she is brushing up her lines for the Senate hearings that, barring some unforeseeable disaster, will shortly confirm her as America's 67th Secretary of State.

Those very different career options tell you a lot about Condoleezza Rice, child piano prodigy, brilliant student, foreign policy specialist and sports enthusiast. She is a Renaissance woman, but with an unmistakable "only-in-America" twist - the daughter of black parents from Birmingham, Alabama, who has risen to become arguably the most powerful woman in the world.

Growing up in the South gave her a firsthand taste of segregation and white supremacism. From it, she drew the lesson that she needed, as she put it, to be "twice as good" as non-minorities to succeed. And she was, graduating from the University of Denver at 19, and becoming a professor just seven years later. At 34, she was a senior White House official under the first President Bush, before being named provost of Stanford University in California. When George Bush was elected she became the first female national security adviser in the history of the organisation created by Harry Truman in 1947.

But Condoleezza (the name derives from the Italian musical term for "with sweetness") is by no means all work and no play. She adores grid iron football, a sport she sees as a metaphor for the battlefield rivalries between nations. She remains a concert-class pianist, with a special fondness for Brahms. She is an excellent ice skater and a more than decent performer on the tennis court. But this remarkable tale conceals as much as it reveals about the woman who is now universally known as "Condi". The truth is that, for almost four years now, she has been a distinctly mediocre national security adviser.

The proof is in her record. Though 11 September 2001 cannot be blamed on George Bush, she was slow to wake up to the threat of al-Qa'ida, despite repeated warnings from Dick Clarke, the former National Security Council official, and others. Then came Iraq, where to have allowed the famous "16 word" reference to Saddam's alleged hunt for uranium in Africa to find its way into the 2003 state of the union speech was the least of her failings.

More seriously, Rice seems to have blithely bought all the dodgy WMD intelligence peddled by the Pentagon, the Vice-President's office and Iraqi exile groups. She, too, did her share of scaremongering (as in "We can't wait for the smoking gun [over Iraq] to be a mushroom cloud".) Nor was she able to end the quarrelling between Colin Powell's State Department and Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon. If a national security adviser has any task, it is to iron out the inter-agency disputes endemic to Washington before they reach the president.

So weak was her grip on proceedings however, that Richard Armitage, Powell's deputy, publicly described the security policy-making process as "dysfunctional". Her role in that process has never been clear - not surprisingly perhaps, in an administration whose super-secretive modus operandi has more in common with the Kremlin than with Camelot.

The charitable view is that she was the swing vote in Bush's inner circle, siding usually with the formidable alliance between the Defence Secretary and the Vice-President Cheney, less often with Powell. For the most part however, she seems to have gone with the flow, rarely imposing her own opinions. Her public manner can come across as know-all and somewhat nannyish. In television interviews, she remains relentlessly "on message", more spokeswoman for policies rather than architect of them.

So how will she fare at State? If there is a "Rice Doctrine", it is that the US should be ready to use its vast power in the cause of freedom and democracy. This is not merely the line of her boss; it stems directly from the miseries and indignities that flourished in the segregated South of her childhood. By training she is a Russia hand, and she will have few illusions about the undemocratic road down which President Putin is taking his country. But she has no obvious affinity with "Old Europe," and has manifested little feel for the complexities of the Middle East. Mostly, she has repeated Bush's pro-Israel orthodoxies.

The real danger however, is that her appointment will further stifle the flow of competing viewpoints to a president uncomfortable with genuine argument, and unreceptive to realities that collide with his gut instincts.

Perhaps she will be influenced by the more doveish and multilateralist leanings of the State Department, so suspect in the Vice-President's office and the dens of neo-conservatism. But even so, Secretary of State Rice - just as national security adviser Rice before her - will have to contend with Dick Cheney, the most influential vice-president in US history, and with the bulldozing Rumsfeld. In Bush's first term that alliance usually prevailed on key issues such as Iraq; so long as Rumsfeld remains in his job, there is little reason to suppose it will not do so in a second term.

But Rice has one incalculable asset that Powell, Cheney and Rumsfeld do not possess - her unrivalled closeness to President Bush. During the 2000 campaign she was his foreign policy mentor, and carried that role into the White House.For this generation of Bushes, she is family. Unmarried and with no known companion, she spends many weekends at Camp David, watching basketball and football with a president who is as sports mad as she is.

The difference between Rice and Powell could hardly be greater. Foreign governments may have appreciated her predecessor for his sympathetic ear and his willingness to present their point of view in Washington, but everyone knew that Colin Powell was more often than not in a minority of one, whose statements might be contradicted by the White House within 48 hours. When Condi speaks, on the other hand, every foreign interlocutor will know that, for better or worse, her words are those of Bush.

The chemistry between her and America's career diplomats will be fascinating to behold. In her brief and gracious statement last week accepting the nomination, Rice went out of her way to praise them. But that alone was not enough to dispel widespread fears at State that she had been dispatched by the President to bring the department to heel.

Or she could follow the example of James Baker, the consigliere of George Bush the elder and the last secretary of state to enjoy a comparably close relationship with a sitting president. The Baker style was not to suppress the bureaucracy, but to circumvent it. When he held the job, between 1989 and 1992, Baker operated with a small coterie of key advisers, clustered on the seventh floor where the secretary has his office, in closer liaison with the White House than his own department.

Given that Stephen Hadley, her trusted deputy at the White House, is being promoted to national security adviser in her wake, Rice will surely be tempted to do the same. However she does her job, in four years' time she will be eyeing the prospect of becoming the first woman commissioner of the National Football League - one post that even a president's patronage cannot bestow upon her.