We must learn to appreciate Condi Rice

She was offering the Europeans a partnership, but it is a partnership in an American enterprise
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The Independent Online

Handshakes in the Middle East, smiles in Europe; Condoleezza Rice's first foreign trip as Secretary of State appeared to be an emollient success. But the emollience related to matters of style, not substance. As they are uneasily aware in Paris and Berlin, the success was on American terms.

Handshakes in the Middle East, smiles in Europe; Condoleezza Rice's first foreign trip as Secretary of State appeared to be an emollient success. But the emollience related to matters of style, not substance. As they are uneasily aware in Paris and Berlin, the success was on American terms.

Ms Rice was offering the Europeans a partnership, and she referred to Europe as a vital pillar. But it is a partnership in an American enterprise: a pillar in a building of George Bush's design. The President regularly refers to Condi Rice as family. That is an accurate description of their relationship. As Secretary of State, she will be a devoted sibling.

In much of Western Europe, that will be a depressing thought. As long as Colin Powell was in office, America's European critics believed they had a court of appeal: a Secretary of State who secretly agreed rather more with them than he did with his President. That was always an exaggeration. It reflected General Powell's obstinate belief - a regular source of irritation in the White House - that policy disagreements could easily be dissolved by personal diplomacy. The Europeans would frequently read more into Colin Powell's good manners than he either meant, or could ever have been able to deliver. Condi Rice, a woman of innate and serene charm, will be equally well-mannered. But there will be no more ambiguity. She is there to implement the President's wishes.

They do not include a desire to invade Iran. Various Europeans have worked themselves into a frenzy about supposed American plans for going to war with Iran. Yet there has never been a shred of evidence that these exist. On the contrary: the Bush administration is still trying to think through its position and come to basic conclusions.

No one seems to know how long it will be before the Iranians have nuclear weapons and a delivery system. There is equal uncertainty as to the strength of the regime. Some neo-conservative thinktankers have criticised the administration for not doing more to fund and encourage Iraqi dissidents. Those closer to government are not so sure. They worry that too blatant an American intervention would help the mullahs to discredit their opponents.

As a general rule, the nearer people in Washington are to power, the less certain they appear to be about the answers to the most important questions about Iran. No one can rule out the possibility that dire developments might necessitate a military response, but there is no enthusiasm for another war. If European diplomacy, the International Atomic Energy Authority and the Security Council can rein in Iranian nuclear ambitions, Mr Bush will thank them.

Anxieties about Iran do not indicate a more general self doubt. This President does not do self doubt, and if he did, he would have been cured by his own re-election, plus the Iraqi election. In the run up to 30 January, all sorts of people from Kofi Annan downwards (or should that be upwards?) were urging postponement. The President simply refused to listen. It would be wrong to claim that he now feels vindicated. He was always certain that he was right. It may be, however, that Washington is being overly sanguine about the Iraqi election. Will the Kurds accept that they are Iraqis? Will the Shia share power? Will the Sunnis reconcile themselves to the loss of monopoly power?

Those around President Bush are right to insist on the moral force of the ballot box; in the redemptive effect of free elections. But the old Europeans are not invariably wrong about everything. They understand that democracy depends on self-restraint, buttressed by the rule of law. It remains to be seen whether the Iraqis will learn to temper American idealism with European scepticism.

The Bushites are not prepared to temper their scepticism about Europe. They see the distinction between themselves and Messrs Chirac and Schröder as a simple choice: between right and wrong. While the US was overthrowing Saddam and freeing Iraq, the Europeans were carping and bitching. While the President was working on an Israeli/Palestine peace plan, the Europeans were funding Yasser Arafat. It is as if old Europe would prefer to be doing business with Saddam and Arafat.

Yet anti-American European liberals persist in believing that old Europe possesses a superior understanding of foreign affairs. In Washington these days, they can hardly even be bothered to feel angry when old Europeans talk like that. It is now more a matter of pity, or mirth.

An entirely different sort of laughter characterises the diplomacy between London and Washington. There, it is the pure myth of amity. When a British conservative talks to friends in the Bush camp, there is only one problem. It is impossible to persuade them that Tony Blair has any faults. If all Labour seats were as safe as Neo-con Central, the PM would be certain of an increased majority. If anything, the Bush/Blair friendship continues to deepen. The two men often speak on video link, and will sometimes argue in the unrestrained way that old friends employ during a vigorous debate. "I can't think why you believe that," one or other will say. But the discussions invariably end on common ground.

The Churchill/Roosevelt entente eventually deteriorated, and Margaret Thatcher had disputes with Ronald Reagan. It may be that the Bush/Blair partnership will go down in history as the closest-ever working relationship between President and Premier.

That is not going to cheer them up in old Europe. On the continent, they are used to US visitors who, whatever the softening and seductive influences of an ancient civilisation, remain obstinately American. Thus it will be with George Bush when he visits the European mainland. Though the President will shake hands, his heart will still be in Texas.

Condi Rice's will be in the White House. So soon after a Presidential election, it might seem foolish to talk about the next one, three-and-a-half embattled years away. But Republicans are already beginning to wonder about the succession, especially as the most obvious candidate would appear to be disqualified. A better speaker than either his brother or his father, Jeb Bush is a successful governor and a proven election-winner. If his name was Jeb Smith, he would be the strong favourite for the Republican nomination. But the conventional wisdom is that the voters would jib at Jeb, as too dynastic.

So it may be that another family member will have to take up the challenge. Condi Rice would appear to have several drawbacks. Black, female and unmarried, she has never run for elective office. But now that she is in a public role, she is winning high ratings for ability, likeability and decency, which should not surprise anyone. She possesses all of those qualities.

Her fortunes are, of course, bound up with her adoptive brother's success, especially in Iraq. In comparison with overcoming Iraqi ethnic rivalries, carrying Florida and Ohio might seem a simple task. But it would be folly to rule out Condi Rice. The Europeans should try to accustom themselves to doing business with her. She may be around for a long time.