The prime vulcan

New US Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice has completed a global tour, spreading President Bush’s doctrine around the Middle East and Europe. But can Colin Powell’s successor really make an impact on the world stage, or is she out of her depth? Gerard Baker of The Times reports.

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  February 13, 2005

The prime vulcan|~|In-the-freame-200.jpg|~|IN THE FRAME: Attention will be focused on Dr. Rice as she settles into her new role.|~|New US Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice has completed a global tour, spreading President Bush’s doctrine around the Middle East and Europe. But can Colin Powell’s successor really make an impact on the world stage, or is she out of her depth? Gerard Baker of The Times reports. HIGH above Birmingham, Alabama, looking out over the city from his perch on a pedestal of marble, stands a cast-iron statue of Vulcan, Roman god of fire and the forge. The 56-foot figure, the largest of its material in the world, was built 100 years ago as a monument to Birmingham’s heritage as the iron and steel capital of the South. The foundries are nearly all gone now but the statue stands still, and today one of its legacies can be found in a most unexpected place. When George W. Bush began his bid for the US presidency in 1999, he assembled a team of foreign policy specialists. These high-powered Republican strategists informally named their group after Vulcan. It was a joke at first, but it stuck; the members rather liked the image it conveyed — tough, resilient, steeled by fire. But the main reason for the choice was deference and respect to the most sparkling and engaging member of their group. Condoleezza Rice, a specialist in eastern European affairs, was rapidly emerging as the most influential foreign policy figure around the presidential candidate. She had been raised in Birmingham, in the shadow of the statue. In her honour, the powerful men around the would-be president became Vulcans. This weekend, this most improbable of Iron Ladies, the prime Vulcan in that ferrous team, embarks upon the first mission in what is the most important stage yet of a remarkable career. At 50, Dr. Rice is now at the pinnacle of the US foreign policy establishment as the 66th Secretary of State and the first black woman to hold the office. After four turbulent years as National Security Adviser in the White House, she is now charged with conducting American diplomacy for the second Bush term. Beginning with London, her first trip involved visits to eight European countries as well as Israel and the West Bank in eight days. At the State Department the word has already gone out that the second Bush term will begin with an aggressive and determined effort to mend broken fences with allies in Europe and to give new impetus to the Israel-Palestine peace process. The aim is to do this without detracting from President Bush’s commitment, spelt out in his inaugural address, to promote democracy in the Middle East and around the world and his further determination, reiterated in the State of the Union address this week, to confront the potential threat from states such as Iran and Syria. This may be a tall order. The US will push for a tougher line than European allies want over Iran’s nuclear programme, and still conspicuously avoids ruling out the use of force. The US may also see the outlines of a final settlement in the Holy Land differently from how the Europeans and the Palestinians perceive it. The Bush Administration is still smarting over the EU’s move to lift its arms embargo imposed on China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. But State and White House officials insist these need not derail efforts to repair transatlantic trust and they say Dr. Rice’s own personal commitment to diplomacy is not in doubt. At her confirmation hearing in the Senate, she emphasised this commitment: “The time for diplomacy is now,” she said. Advisers say the difference between her and Colin Powell, her predecessor who was increasingly marginalised in the first Bush term, is her proximity to the President. “A super-smart, elegant woman, a foreign policy specialist who speaks three foreign languages and is as close to the President as any Secretary of State has been in decades. What more could you want?” one senior official says. Condoleezza Rice grew up in a troubled South in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was an unnerving time for a young African-American. Birmingham was rack-ed by the fight over desegregation; in 1963, four young black girls were murdered when a segregationist bomber blew up a Baptist church — one of them an elementary schoolfriend of hers. She had to choose at a young age between a career in music — she was a talented pianist — and her growing interest in international relations. She said she never quite felt she had enough talent to be a serious musician. Graduating from the University of Denver at 19, she took a doctorate in Warsaw Pact studies. As a young professor at Stanford in the late 1980s, she impressed Brent Scowcroft, who had been National Security Adviser to Republican presidents. In 1989, by now an authority on Soviet studies, she joined Scowcroft on George H. W. Bush’s National Security Council. Her first job was to figure out the origins of a 500lb cake addressed in Russian to President Bush and delivered in his first week in office. While the Secret Service was convinced it was a bomb or trap, she discovered it had come from a Soviet baking collective, and drafted a thank-you note from the President. During Clinton’s presidency she returned to Stanford and became provost, aged 38. Her continuing tutelage by Scowcroft proved highly valuable. He recommended her to George W.Bush in the 1990s and the Vulcans were born. For the last four years, her main association has been with a revolution in US foreign policy — an approach that has consciously shifted in a more unilateralist direction. Dr. Rice was the principal author of a 2002 national security strategy for the post-9/11 world which emphasised the right to take pre-emptive military action, a doctrine that led directly to the split with some European countries and war in Iraq. But while aides insist there is no change in the thrust of Bush’s second-term foreign policy, there is an acknowledgement that the next few years will be different. Iraq constrains the US from undertaking another large military action. And officials have emphasised that the new Secretary of State understands the importance of movement on Israel-Palestine if the US wants support in its broad aim of stabilising Iraq and transforming the Middle East. So far, the signs are good. Two days after meeting both Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian leader, the two sides agreed to a truce. Soon, she will again visit London for a conference hosted by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair for the Palestinians. Perhaps most striking is the talk of the outline of a longer-term strategic deal between the US and Europe over the Middle East. It would involve the US offering more support to the Palestinians. In exchange the Europeans would provide some increased backing for the US and British-led effort in Iraq. In his State of the Union speech two weeks ago, President Bush seemed to put on the table the first part of his side of the bargain — a US$350 million support package for the Palestinian Authority. When Dr. Rice meets Javier Solana, the EU Foreign and Security policy chief next week, it is possible that Europe’s side of the bargain may emerge. Napoleon once asked of one of his renowned generals, “Yes, but is he lucky?” Dr. Rice looks like she has luck on her side. Just weeks before she took over, Yassir Arafat died, removing the biggest obstacle to peace and progress in the Middle East. In her first week, millions of Iraqis voted in their first free elections in 50 years. But there are plenty of pitfalls ahead; and she will need more than luck. The agenda for the next few years suggests Dr. Rice will have her work cut out. She certainly seems to acknowledge that. As her plane approached London on the first leg of her tour, she gave the press a pocket world atlas each. “We’re going to travel a lot,” she said, “and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel lost.” ||**||

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