Rice's big challenge


ATLANTA - Sadly, Condoleezza Rice's parents did not live to see their only child's greatest accomplishment. She is about to become secretary of state, the first black woman to hold the highest post in the Cabinet.

Ms. Rice's parents were single-minded in grooming her for extraordinary success despite the circumstances of her birth. A daughter of the segregated South and childhood friend of Denise McNair, one of the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Ala., Ms. Rice would have seemed back then an unlikely candidate for such high office.

Her tenure should be judged on whether she manages to steer President Bush's foreign policy away from its dangerous imperialist tendencies.

In her confirmation hearings, Ms. Rice proclaimed a sincere interest in restoring the traditional alliances that Mr. Bush and his team (including her) went about ripping to shreds during their first four years. Contemptuous of France and Germany, patronizing even toward Britain, our ally, the Bush administration invaded Iraq with the disapproval of most of the world and then had the gall to try to talk France and Germany into sinking their troops into the quagmire. That didn't go very well.

It's no surprise that Ms. Rice now claims she wants to mend fences. That's what her confirmation audience wanted to hear. After all, it has become only too clear that the United States needs all the help it can get - not necessarily to stabilize Iraq (it's probably too late for that) but to deal with Iran and North Korea. There's also the real war on terror, which revolves around the still-at-large Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, which has cells spread across the globe.

But Ms. Rice would have to run hard to rein in the president's worst instincts. First, she'd have to do an about-face. As national security adviser, she was one of the White House hawks - cheerleader for a pre-emptive war based on false premises, egregious misconceptions and naive assumptions. And nothing in her confirmation hearings suggested that she was prepared to acknowledge those colossal missteps.

If she is - like the president himself - suffering from the grand delusion that the invasion of Iraq was completely justified and perfectly planned, her tenure will be disastrous. Many who share the president's skewed reality are now insisting that the United States should continue its quixotic quest to implant Jeffersonian democracy by invading Iran and Syria. If Ms. Rice also inhabits that reality, the next four years will see a U.S. foreign policy run amok.

But maybe, just maybe, Ms. Rice is firmly grounded in reality. Perhaps, in her tenure as national security adviser, she was simply not in a strong enough position to stare down Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld or Vice President Dick Cheney - White House insiders, foreign-policy veterans and masters at the fine art of browbeating and back-stabbing. Maybe Ms. Rice knew better than to believe in their imperialist ambitions but didn't have the power to quash them.

She will need to find that power, that backbone, now. She starts with an advantage that her predecessor, Colin L. Powell, never had: She has the president's profound trust. As one of his closest friends, she spends more time with him than any other member of his Cabinet. She should use it to steer him toward a pragmatic foreign policy that respects allies, values diplomacy and understands compromise.

If she accomplishes that, she will have done much more than become the first black woman to serve as secretary of state. She will have done her nation a great service, moderating a foreign policy that has made the world more dangerous.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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