Rice Back on Foreign Policy Hot Seat

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice struck a deliberate note of caution when she told reporters before embarking on her Middle East peace mission not to expect a quick fix to the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. Rice deliberately downplayed expectations of a settlement in part to deflect furious Lebanese, UN and international criticism of President Bush for saying and doing nothing for a week while Israel military rockets and missiles rained down on Lebanese homes and civilians.

Her cautious response was in bigger part a not so subtle admission that there was little she or Bush could or would do to stop Israel's bombardment. Rice branded Hezbollah a terrorist and extremist organization, blamed the fighting on it, and made it clear that she would not talk to Hezbollah leaders, or Syria or Iran, but to Israeli and Palestinian officials. Palestinian leaders have absolutely no say over Hezbollah political or military actions.

Rice's refusal to try and bring both warring sides to the negotiating table was too limited, and one sided and virtually doomed her Middle East jaunt to fail. That made Rice's talk of a long term Middle East solution sound disingenuous and empty.

The Israel and Hezbollah battles dumped Rice back on the diplomatic hot seat. But it's hardly the first time that Rice has been in that seat. In February, Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee virtually dumped Bush's international miscues on her. That's fair and unfair. Rice is Bush's point person on foreign policy. Her job is to sell administration policy decisions on North Korean nukes, Iran, the Middle East turmoil, the war on terrorism, and Iraq. And as any Secretary of State, she'll take heat when things go wrong. That's fair and unfair. Rice is Bush's point person on foreign policy. Her job is to sell administration policy decisions on North Korean nukes, Iran, the Middle East turmoil, the war on terrorism, and Iraq. When things go wrong internationally, she will take the heat. Rice has been a soft target for criticism from the moment that Bush announced that he'd appoint her to take over from the departing Colin Powell as Secretary of State. The howls started that Rice was too hawkish, too fawning toward Bush, too lacking in social and diplomatic graces, and too inexperienced to broker a Middle East deal, and resolve the crisis over Iran and North Korea's nuke threat. Rice didn't burnish her image as a take charge diplomat when she initially waffled on whether to lead a peace mission to the Middle East to stop the Israeli - Hezbollah warfare. She begged off with the vapid and unsatisfactory rejoinder that she'd only go if she could be "helpful." It took a forceful nudge by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and the loud cries from UN member nations of Bush's inaction on the fighting, to get Rice on a plane scurrying to the Middle East.

Rice's invisibility and die-hard Bush loyalty has been her diplomatic trademark. There were long stretches during the intense debates over Bush's Iraq war policy, the war on terrorism, foreign policy and security matters, when Rice, then Bush's National Security Advisor, sank from public view. During those time lapses, Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and even Vice President Dick Cheney became familiar fixtures on talk shows explaining Bush policy.

Some inveterate Bush watchers asked, "Where's Condi?" But Rice's role is not to make policy but to follow Bush policy directives. Like a good team player she takes orders, follows directions, and does not stray one inch from the Bush administration political script.

Even if Rice took her boss to task on some aspects of foreign policy, and Bush listened, the glaring flaws would not instantly be picked out of his policies. There are complex competing economic and political interests that help shape American foreign policy apart from Bush's, or any other president's, ideology and world-view. Iraq is a near textbook example of that. The Senate Republicans, and even most of the Democrats, that pounded her for Bush's Iraq bungling, dutifully voted for the war, and have repeatedly given foreign policy cover for it.

While Bush and Rice hotly deny that oil has anything to do with the decision to impose a regime change in Iraq, Iraq's oil is worth billions, and U.S. oil and energy companies make no secret that they intend to control it and reap the profits. Rice is only a bit player in the global economic decisions that go into making and shaping U.S. foreign policy.

The fighting in the Middle East is less a test of Rice's talent and ability to broker peace in the region, than confirmation that her main job is to tirelessly defend Bush's foreign policy initiatives even when they are nonexistent or badly flawed. It's a job she's done remarkably well even as the casualties and suffering in Lebanon irk the world.

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