America's Best Leaders: Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State
"Con dolcezza," in Italian, means "with sweetness," a musical reference. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a classically trained pianist, can indeed show a touch of southern charm in her meetings with foreign leaders.
But there is also a steeliness behind the svelte, well-dressed "slip of a girl," as one of her mentors, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, once described his first impression upon meeting the young scholar of Soviet and Russian affairs. For this is the woman who, later as an aide on Scowcroft's National Security Council, physically blocked burly Russian leader Boris Yeltsin from barging in on then President George H. W. Bush without an appointment. As the provost of Stanford University, then President Bush's national security adviser, and now America's top diplomat, her reputation for toughness has only grown.
European diplomats were surprised at her blunt warnings in private this year not to lift an arms embargo on China; they eventually backed down, preserving the ban. "She told them our ships and sailors would be on the receiving end" of European-made weapons if the United States and China ever came to blows over Taiwan, says an aide. A devout Christian, she attended church services in Beijing, a not-so-veiled statement for religious freedom in the Communist country. And after the arrest of a democracy activist in Egypt, she canceled an expected visit. When she did travel to Egypt, Rice met with the activist and delivered perhaps the sternest public lecture ever by a visiting American diplomat on the need for Egypt to move toward full democracy.
To many, Rice's Olympian career riseto be the first African-American woman to serve as secretary of statealready offers a heady role model of leadership. But Rice, 50, is now facing her most severe professional challenge: to launch the "transformational diplomacy" she says is needed to spread the blessings of democracy and freedomand tear out the roots of Islamist terrorism.
Already in her first nine months at Foggy Bottom, she has scored some at least tentative successes. U.S. diplomacy on North Korea has shown new suppleness, leading to the resumption of stalled talks and an agreement on the goal of no nuclear weapons. Relations with Europe have improved after disputes over Iraq and other issues. Washington is suddenly on the same page as Europe on pressuring Iran to abandon its suspect nuclear projects. Rice encouraged a deal to send war-crimes suspects in the ethnic violence in Sudan's Darfur region to an international court. And Rice personally negotiated a deal over who would lead the Organization of American States, avoiding a damaging spat with Latin American countries.
Sensing the need to conduct some global repair work on America's relationships, she has broken past records for travel as secretary of state. She has drawn to her side a group of experienced pragmatists. And Rice has restored the primacy of the State Department in the making of foreign policy after four years of internal squabbling. "You can put a bow on that one," says Derek Chollet, a foreign-policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former adviser to Democratic Sen. John Edwards.
The thread running through Rice's career is disciplineand drive. Born in Birmingham, Ala., Rice learned from her parents that she could be anything in life. Despite the racism and segregation of the time, she took the message to heart.
Rice awakens most mornings at 4:30 a.m., a legacy of her youth as a competitive figure skater, when she rose early to practice at the ice rink. Rice began her piano lessons at age 3 and still plays for pleasure, sometimes for a couple of hours on Sundays in her Watergate apartment. Brahms and Mozart are favorites. So is pro football, a personal passion for Rice, who also plays tennis.
Rice starts her days with an hour of exercise, then goes to the office by 7 a.m. She often takes her lunch at her desk on the seventh floor of State. A speed-reader, she has immersed herself in the details of the department's budget. Rice chairs staff meetings after 8 a.m. and again to wrap up the day at 6 p.m. In public, she typically hews closely to script, staying in sync with the president. Associates credit her with staying focused on policy goals. "She is strategic in every part of her DNA," says Robert Blackwill, a friend and former ambassador to India who has worked for Rice.
Rice also enjoys the clout that comes with genuine closeness to the president. Once a foreign-policy tutor to then Governor Bush, she evolved into a virtual member of the Bush family, watching sports on TV with the commander in chief at Camp David and taking walks with the president and Laura Bush at the ranch in Crawford, Texas. She may speak with Bush once or twice a day by phone, sometimes more. Foreign leaders have no doubt she speaks for the presidenta quality reminiscent of another presidential friend turned secretary of state, James Baker.
"She's probably the most powerful secretary of state in decades," allows Jean-David Levitte, France's ambassador to the United States.
Still, Rice has taken some knocks for her performance at the NSC. Critics contend that she neglected pre-9/11 terror warnings and failed to alert the president to shortcomings in the intelligence claims on Iraq's unconventional weapons. Rice has also been faulted for not using her NSC post to iron out disputes that pitted State against hawks at Defense and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
Rice failed to perform the needed role of policy and bureaucratic "balancer" in that job, charges Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff for Rice's predecessor, Colin Powell.
After 9/11, Rice's own foreign-policy orientation seemed to shiftin step with Bush'sfrom the realism of power politics to the idealism of what she calls "the march of democracy." The status quo, she argues, has bred terrorists in the realms of "oppression and despair in the modern Middle East."
She likens her current mission to that of another "extraordinary moment": the post-World War II task of reshaping world politics by building democracy in war-shattered lands and confronting Soviet-led communism. She believes that the statesmen of that eraPresident Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Achesonwere up to the challenge. Now we will see whether Rice and her friend the president are up to theirs. -Thomas Omestad