By DANIEL SNEIDER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
The hearings this week for Condoleezza Rice's nomination as secretary of state will be largely political theater. The Democrats plan to politely hound the president's national security adviser for her role in the Iraq war.
But it would be more useful to probe what role Rice intends to play in shaping the foreign policy during Bush's second term.
Colin Powell's State Department was headquarters for the loyal opposition in the Washington policy wars, fighting repeated battles with Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney over issues ranging from Iraq to the handling of North Korea and Iran.
Will Rice offer a distinct voice on foreign policy at State? Or will the former Stanford provost transplant to the State Department her function as the person who turns the president's gut instincts into well-crafted national security doctrine?
Rice's proposed top aides suggest she will run her own show with a strong hand. But they also send the message that loyalty to the president comes first and that the policy battles of the first term are essentially over.
"There is no more debate about foreign policy," says Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution, a former Clinton national security adviser and the author of a book on Bush foreign policy. "Everybody's on the same line."
What may be different, however, is a greater emphasis on diplomacy, particularly on fence-mending with America's allies. The president's trip to Europe next month is a step down that road. Expect Rice to spend a lot of time on an airplane in the months that follow.
Rice's close circle at State will be professionals, many of whom served with her in the administration of Bush senior, with experience in Europe. The men she picked as her No. 2 and No. 3 deputies -- Robert Zoellick, the current trade negotiator, and Nicholas Burns, the ambassador to NATO -- are tough-minded, unhesitant to use U.S. power but pragmatic. And they are loyal to the president.
The only partial exception is Robert Joseph, who is expected to become undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, replacing prominent neo-con stalwart John Bolton. Bolton notoriously interfered in Powell's efforts to pursue a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear program.
Joseph, who served as Rice's deputy at the National Security Council, is described by one administration insider as an "ideologue's ideologue." Unlike Bolton, "he doesn't like to do it in speeches -- he does it quietly."
The handling of North Korea will be an interesting early test of Rice's tenure at state. The Pyongyang regime signaled Friday its readiness to return to the six-party talks held under Chinese auspices. The administration now needs to get on the same page with allies South Korea and Japan, as well as with China, all of whom have been critical of the administration's inflexibility.
A possible sign of where Rice is headed is in naming the current U.S. ambassador to Korea, Chris Hill, as assistant secretary of state for East Asia, according to the influential Nelson Report. Sources inside State confirm the report.
Hill is a career diplomat, a specialist on Eastern Europe. As ambassador to Poland, he impressed the president by getting the Poles on board as one of the biggest contributors to the Iraq war effort. He is described as smart and outspoken.
In a short time, Hill won over many South Koreans, who are wary of American intentions these days. Typical was a quiet visit he paid to a memorial for Koreans killed in a brutal 1980 suppression of pro-democracy protests against the military regime, an event many Koreans believe was backed by the United States. "I am here with great respect -- and great sorrow -- for the memory of those brave victims," Hill wrote in a visitors' book there.
Privately, according to several sources, Hill supports the need for a direct dialogue with North Korea, something the White House has opposed. He pushed that view in a long session with Rice, one source reports.
A change of tone, particularly when it comes to dealing with allies, will be welcome. But there are real policy differences as well.
By moving from the White House over to Foggy Bottom, Rice now has wings that she didn't have before. The question is, will she use them -- and if so, how?
X Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.