| Astute, intelligent and utterly loyal
A Singaporean friend who minces no words was blunt on the telephone. 'Bush's 'house nigger' has gone,' he bellowed, 'but the promoted maid will do just as well!' It was a cruel way of putting the change in the state department of the US, but no one will quarrel with the assumption of continuity in Washington's increasingly imperial and imperious policy abroad.
The National Security Strategy document which gloatingly laid down a global role for the last presidency is even more pertinent now. It warned us then that George W. Bush 'has no intention of allowing any foreign power to catch up with the huge lead of the United States of America that has opened up since the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago'. Far from being a clash of civilizations, his war on terrorism would, in fact, 'reveal the clash inside a civilization, a battle for the future of the Muslim world'. That presaged more intrigue, conspiracy, bullying and iniquitous regime changes. That means ignoring the collapse of past puppets to prop up clones of Iraq's Iyad Allawi.
A cartoon in The Times, London, showed the woman on whose slender shoulders has fallen the task of articulating this supreme global role as a pin-up girl in swimsuit and high heels plastered on the side of a World War II bomber with a demonic Bush as the nose gunner. As a star pupil at Denver university's graduate school of international studies, Condoleezza Rice may have been introduced to the machiavellian wheeling and dealing of American emissaries in subcontinental politics. Madeleine Albright's father, Josef Korbel, controversial head of the United Nations Commission on India and Pakistan, was her tutor.
It is well known that the Czech diplomat went to extraordinary lengths to conceal his Jewish origins, even from his children. Nor is it a secret that Korbel had no business occupying the post he did since his accreditation was from Czechoslovakia's ousted pre-communist regime. What is less widely known is that in stabbing India in the back by treating 'the thief and the owner of the house as equals' (Jawaharlal Nehru's words) on Kashmir, Korbel was really serving his own personal interest.
Eyes set on US citizenship, he had to file his papers before the end of the three-year diplomatic term from the non-existent Czech government he represented. He had also to ensure a favourable response from the US immigration authorities. Failure would have meant deportation to a Prague that had passed into the control of his bitter political enemies. At best, he would have been another stateless Balkan refugee. The benefit of hindsight suggests that those compulsions determined his conduct on Kashmir.
An Englishman who was attached to the commission tells me they were astonished when Korbel insisted on dashing back to the US (and forcing the rest to do so too) before they had had an opportunity to digest everything they had seen and heard in Kashmir. No one knew then of the deadline by which Korbel had to submit his citizenship application. They had even less idea that a verdict on Kashmir that displeased Pakistan would have displeased Washington even more.
Whatever the effects of this early brush with deviousness, Rice must work hard to earn credibility. It became clear during Colin Powell's tenure that the Pentagon ranked above the state department and that men like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz dwarfed the secretary of state. The consensus is that Powell should have resigned then instead of now, but that view ignores the complexities of human nature. Allowance has to be made for the allure of high office and the self-discipline of a distinguished soldier. Nor is there really much evidence of Powell's supposed moderation. Perhaps he was also too trusting, famously holding up a test tube of white powder as proof of Saddam Hussein's diabolical chemical weapons. The military intelligence boys who had gulled the old soldier must have been laughing up their sleeves at his na'vet'.
Rice is astute, intelligent and utterly loyal. Unlike Powell, she is not an outsider. She assembled the men who became known as the Vulcans to fight Bush's first presidential campaign, and the media invented the name with its Star Trek associations because the steel industry dominates her home town of Birmingham, Alabama, with its statue of Vulcan. Bush's team was supposed to forge Republican policy like the Roman god of fire forged metals. She was rewarded by being made national security adviser.
But familiarity does not always mean influence. Even if it did, by all accounts Rice would be no different from the most bigoted neo-conservative. Her translation, therefore, from the role of president's confidante and trouble-shooter to that of principal boy in the Christmas pantomime of Bush's foreign policy may not make any difference to the policy itself.
The question now is whether she will only carry out orders or impress her own stamp on policy and policy-making. If the latter, will a Rice view of the world be any different from the vision of the white male neo-cons' Popular lore places her to the right of right, just as Powell was seen as a liberal fallen among fundamentalists. There is no means of knowing whether this is where she stands naturally or whether extreme hawkishness is the defensive armour of an insecure young black woman thrown in the company of a clutch of reactionary men who are as different from her as could be in terms of race and background.
Iraq, Iran, North Korea and the Israel-Palestine question await her attention in her new incarnation. There is little that she or her boss need do on Iran and North Korea save exercise restraint. Another burst of their drum-beating evangelical crusade will only further divert attention from the war on terror that is said to be the administration's main concern. As for Iraq, it has become too complex for any easy formula though it is clear enough that there can be no peace until the US reconciles itself to disengagement. If it does not do so with voluntary grace, it may find itself in the same invidious predicament as in Vietnam, where the American ambassador had to be rescued in humiliating haste, the Stars and Stripes bundled in a plastic bag under his arm.
But it is in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights that the US faces both opportunity and danger. Osama bin Laden's reference to the Palestine cause in his last video broadcast was a serious reminder of the centrality of the problem not only in west Asian affairs but in many Muslim situations. It is a festering sore that aggravates discontent. But it is simplistic to imagine that with Yasser Arafat gone, a solution is round the corner. That would be playing into the hands of Israeli expansionists who calculate that Arafat's successors will be too weak to resist the imposition of a fragmented little Bantustan in Gaza and some shreds of the West Bank while Israel gobbles up the rest, together with East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. That was the whole purpose of Ariel Sharon's recent evacuation of the Gaza Strip. It is a purpose that will intensify the west Asian conflict and, thereby, the wider war between the US and forces that represent Islamic interests.
A vital choice faces the second Bush presidency. It can rely only on its superpower strength to bludgeon the world into subservience for as long as possible. Or, accepting that global stature depends ultimately on the ability to dispense justice, the US can transform itself into peacemaker and partner in development. The secretary of state has a crucial role in that choice. Whether Rice has the wisdom to realize this or will have the courage and ability to implement it are different matters.