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Under Rice, Powell’s Policies Are Reborn

Times Staff Writer

For four years, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his team faced off against administration hawks on one foreign policy issue after another, and usually went down in defeat.

These days, his successor, Condoleezza Rice, is pushing nearly identical positions, and almost always winning.

An administration that was criticized in the first term for an assertive, go-it-alone approach has reversed ground again and again, joining multinational efforts to keep nuclear arms from North Korea and Iran, mending ties with Europe, and softening a hard line on the United Nations and International Criminal Court.

“She’s clearly trying to accomplish a number of the goals that Powell was going after, until he found himself stymied,” said Stewart Patrick, who served in Powell’s policy planning office.

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A former senior State Department official put it more bluntly: “It’s Powell’s policy without Powell.”

The shifts have surprised many in the foreign policy community, who had expected a different approach from Rice. As President Bush’s first-term national security advisor, she was a blunt advocate for the tough White House line.

But Rice’s course says a lot about the arc of the administration’s foreign policy in the second term.

The new diplomacy of compromise has grown in part from the way in which the continuing burden of Iraq has limited U.S. options. After a post-Sept. 11 period of military action and assertive self-interest, the United States has been obliged to give ground to other countries to solve problems.

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Rice’s stance also raises intriguing questions about how much her instincts really differ from those of her predecessor. Although her ringing rhetoric suggests she shares the neoconservative view that America must move aggressively to reshape other countries, her deeds over the last nine months hint at an old-fashioned “realist,” someone willing to deal with “rogue” governments and settle for less-than-perfect solutions.

The new direction stems partly from the fact that Rice has shifted from a neutral post as national security advisor to a job in which she is more removed from the influence of other powerful administration figures -- such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- while facing daily pressure from foreign leaders, said current and former officials and other experts.

The foreign policy change shouldn’t be overstated, experts said.

Despite course adjustments, the Bush team remains highly assertive in its dealings with other countries. In many ways, it remains skeptical of international institutions.

Even so, the change has been undeniable.

The most striking shift to an approach reminiscent of Powell’s came three weeks ago, when Rice’s envoy to the talks on the North Korean nuclear issue joined a tentative deal that promised the government of Kim Jong Il energy aid, light-water nuclear reactors and security guarantees if it forswore nuclear weapons.

Powell’s State Department wanted the kind of engagement with the North Koreans that led to last month’s deal. But the more hawkish officials who dominated in Bush’s first term hoped they could force an agreement from the Pyongyang government without concessions, and allowed the State Department officials only limited contacts.

In 2002, when Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly wanted to try to open a discussion with North Korea, other senior officials decided that he could travel to Pyongyang only in the company of other U.S. aides, who would keep an eye on him.

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“They made sure that there couldn’t be anything like the kind of engagement that led to this [new] deal,” said one former Powell aide, who declined to be identified.

On the Iran nuclear issue, Powell pushed to have U.S. officials work with European countries. He obtained clearance from the White House to begin working in this way, but only over the objections of others in the administration, who argued that the Europeans would be too conciliatory toward Tehran and that their efforts would yield nothing.

In March, Rice took a significant additional step in this direction by announcing the administration’s official support for the efforts of Britain, France and Germany to work out a deal with Iran.

Another important foreign policy shift came in April, when the administration for the first time set aside its strong objections to the International Criminal Court.

Administration officials, led by U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, then the State Department’s arms control chief, had taken an unyielding line on the court, which was created to judge war crimes and genocide cases. Bolton and other officials argued that the tribunal infringed on U.S. sovereignty and could lead to foreign judges’ trying U.S. troops and military and civilian leaders.

But in April, U.S. officials abstained from voting on a U.N. resolution, thus allowing the United Nations to recognize the court’s jurisdiction over cases arising from the fighting in Sudan’s Darfur region. Powell had recommended an abstention months earlier, former aides noted.

Bush administration officials say policies have changed along with circumstances.

“We’re in a different period,” said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his department’s policy. “We had to respond militarily after 9/11.... Now the overriding goal is to try to help the Iraqis and Afghans achieve political victories and build new states. There aren’t military solutions to either of those problems.”

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R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of State for political affairs, said in an interview that Rice had emphasized from the beginning of her term that she intended to stress diplomacy and international institutions to advance the president’s agenda. Burns cited the administration’s approach in the North Korea and Iran talks, the International Criminal Court abstention and the U.S. decision at last month’s meeting of the U.N. General Assembly to soften ambitious demands for reforming the world body’s management.

At the same time, Burns said, “we’re prosecuting a war on terrorism with military and intelligence means, and we’ll be tough as nails where we have to be.”

Some analysts argue that Rice’s vigorous effort to further the president’s “democracy promotion” campaign in the Middle East lines her up with neoconservatives.

Yet there is a debate over how aggressive that effort has turned out to be.

In June, Rice took a bold step with a speech in Cairo that challenged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to reform his government.

But when Egypt’s Sept. 7 presidential election drew widespread criticism, the Bush administration responded in a muted fashion, pointing out two of the election’s shortcomings yet calling it a “landmark” step.

Rice, who calls her approach “practical idealism,” has repeatedly called for Saudi Arabia to broaden democratic participation, while emphasizing that it must do so in its own way and at its own pace.

James Dobbins, a former administration envoy now directing Rand Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center, said the democracy promotion effort could not be portrayed as contributing to a new moderation in administration policy.

Yet dealings with individual countries, with the possible exception of Syria and Lebanon, are “being pursued with some degree of pragmatism,” he said. “They’ve been looking for incremental progress rather than dramatic change.”


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