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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice finds that her star is fading

Sunday, July 22, 2007

I remember the heady days for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

About 2 1/2 years ago, when she was new in office, I accompanied her on her first trip around the world, with stops in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, South Korea, Japan and China. Crowds gathered to see her limousine drive past; people whistled, waved and cheered. Interviewers routinely asked her whether she was planning to run for president. One TV reporter in India told her she was "arguably the most powerful woman in the world." She chuckled but did not exactly agree -- or disagree.

How things change.

A few months ago, she decided to write an opinion piece about Lebanon. She enlisted John Chambers, chief executive officer of Cisco Systems as a co-author, and they wrote about public/private partnerships and how they might be of use in rebuilding Lebanon after last summer's war. No one would publish it.

Think about that. Every one of the major newspapers approached refused to publish an essay by the secretary of state. Price Floyd, who was the State Department's director of media affairs until recently, recalls that it was sent to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and perhaps other papers before the department finally tried a foreign publication, the Financial Times of London, which also turned it down.

As a last-ditch strategy, the State Department briefly considered translating the article into Arabic and trying a Lebanese paper. But finally they just gave up. "I kept hearing the same thing: 'There's no news in this.' " Floyd said. The piece, he said, was littered with glowing references to President Bush's wise leadership. "It read like a campaign document."

Floyd left the State Department on April 1, after 17 years. He said he was fed up with the relentless partisanship and the unwillingness to consider other points of view. His supervisor, a political appointee, kept "telling me to shut up," he said. Nothing like that had occurred under Presidents Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush. "They just wanted us to be Bush automatons."

Does that sound familiar? Earlier this month, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona told Congress that Bush administration officials had repeatedly tried to weaken or suppress important public health reports because they clashed with administration dogma. He said he was ordered to mention Bush three times on every page of his speeches. Floyd's experience shows that the same close-minded zealotry afflicting many departments of government under Bush has descended on the State Department, too. In effect, as Rice's power and influence has waned along with Bush's, intolerance and monomania have taken its place.

Rice did have her moment. But little came of it. Under her predecessor, Colin Powell, major foreign policy decisions were made at the White House or Defense Department. The neo-conservative heavyweights -- Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, among others -- set the policies in Iran and Iraq, North Korea and Israel.

Powell left frustrated. But Rice came into office with Bush's inarguable support; she wore their close relationship on her sleeve. And, for awhile, that worked for her. She called mini-summits on Iraq, Israel and other topics. Everyone showed up. In many countries, she met with the president instead of her bureaucratic counterpart, the foreign minister. Wherever she went, she was a star.

But what has she accomplished? Iraq has slid far downhill in the past 2 1/2 years. Iran is no closer to giving up its nuclear development program than when she took office. Even though the Bush administration has done more than any other country to help the victims in Darfur, the carnage there continues unabated. Last week, the Sudanese government began bombing Darfur civilians again.

Relations with Russia, her area of speciality, have steadily worsened; a week ago, Russia dropped out of a key arms control treaty. Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, has evolved from an irritant to a menace as he moves to nationalize Venezuela's oil industry. Despite many visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories, she has had no appreciable impact on events there.

North Korea has shut down its nuclear reactor. That's an accomplishment. But I give most credit to Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state who continued pushing for a diplomatic solution even as administration hardliners disparaged his work. Hill despised them, and ultimately outlasted them.

From his new position at the American Enterprise Institute, John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador, continues to call for "repudiation of the Feb. 13 deal" that Hill negotiated. But now Bolton is powerless.

Where does that leave Rice?

"I think there is nothing they can do now," Floyd argues. "It's too late. The negatives," primarily Iraq, "are too big. They take all the oxygen out of the room."

Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a former foreign policy correspondent for the New York Times. Contact us at

This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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