US foreign policy, according to Rice

NEWS ANALYSIS

Recent changes show she has overtaken Cheney in shaping policy.

IN JANUARY, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided she was going to cut a deal with North Korea.

From Berlin, where she was travelling, she was reported to have telephoned President George W. Bush to brief him on the outlines of a nuclear accord with Pyongyang.

In doing so, she bypassed a process that normally would have involved VicePresident Dick Cheney’s office, the Pentagon and other government agencies.

Flashback to three years ago: In a strange twist of irony, it was Mr Cheney who put that call to Mr Bush, not for any deal with the North Koreans, but to tighten the screws on Mr Kim Jong Il’s regime.

The declining influence of the Vice-President and his neo-conservative ideologues, and the corresponding rise of Dr Rice and advocates of engagement, have brought noticeable shifts in US foreign policy, especially towards North Korea and the Middle East.

Two years from the end of his second term, Mr Bush has his single closest foreign policy adviser and family friend charting the contours of policy abroad.

A relationship between Commander-in-Chief and Secretary of State that has few parallels in post-war American history. Perhaps, it comes closest to that between then President Richard Nixon and Mr Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. Dr Rice is clearly making her mark as she charts a course away from the more hardline approach of the first term of the Bush administration. Shuttling the world from Asia to the Middle East to Europe to canvass support, she has come into her own in the hot glare of public diplomacy.

In recent weeks, her growing influence resulted in a decision by Washington to talk with Iran and North Korea countries the President once declared were part of the “Axis of Evil.

The decision by the US to attend a conference this month in Baghdad not just with Iran, but also Syria, added what observers felt was a “missing link in American policy in the Middle East.

It will be the highest-level contact between Washington and these countries for years. What brought about the volte-face?

One possible reason was that the US now felt it was acting from a position of strength to deal with Iran at the negotiating table and demand that it be more helpful to the fledgling government in Iraq.

Washington had been levelling pressure on Iran in recent months, linking the Iranians to troop killings in Iraq as well as building up its forces in the Gulf.

It was also threatening sanctions, taking advantage of the recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Teheran had defied a deadline from the United Nations Security Council to suspend uranium enrichment.

Another factor at play was clearly Dr Rice’s influence. The upcoming Middle East conference on Iraq was announced at a time when Mr Cheney was on a world tour criticising Iran’s nuclear programme. It effectively undercut him.

Indeed, Middle East policy is now largely under Dr Rice’s control. This is not a new phenomenon.

As national security adviser in Mr Bush’s first term, it was Dr Rice not then Secretary of State Colin Powell who directed the Middle East peace process.

One aide revealed that she was “obsessed about brokering a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians the single most important issue on her agenda. Behind-the-scenes talks and the recent Israeli-Palestinian summit, however, have not produced the desired results.

Talks with North Korea, on the other hand, have yielded some results.

Pyongyang agreed last month to shut its main nuclear reactor in exchange for food and fuel aid, and the US and North Korea will start talks on normalising ties.

All these diplomatic efforts have done wonders for Dr Rice’s approval ratings.

She has had the highest public support among the Bush administration including the President himself.

Her celebrity status is growing these days: She appeared in Vanity Fair’s best-dressed list and in an article in Vogue.

But increasingly, this has also meant taking the flak for the Bush administration.

At the Senate hearing on Iraq in January, she came in for unprecedented criticism.

Iraq will remain an albatross, not just for Mr Bush, but also for his Secretary of State.

Her success in engaging North Korea and Iran will count for nothing if Iraq continues to burn and American troops are sucked deeper into the quagmire.

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