Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's just-concluded trip to Europe signals that the United States is back in the diplomacy business in earnest again. Part of the reason is that after four years of Colin Powell, the United States now has a secretary of state in full.
A contradiction President Bush's critics have never confronted is that they spent the past four years lamenting the Bush administration's poor diplomacy at the same time they celebrated its top diplomat. They only turned on Powell when he took the administration's case against Saddam Hussein to the world with his February 2003 speech to the United Nations -- never mind this is the sort of thing written in a secretary of state's job description (it wasn't Powell's fault that the prewar intelligence was so grievously flawed).
Rice was helped in Europe by having a wind at her back from Bush's re-election and the Jan. 30 vote in Iraq, and there will surely be difficult days ahead for her (can you say Pyongyang?). But her tenure, following directly on the heel's Powell's, will probably offer a tale of two secretaries of state.
Rice gets things Powell never did. For instance, that leaking to Bob Woodward and other Washington Post reporters is not the secretary of state's chief responsibility. Powell was so obviously the primary source for so many journalistic accounts of intra-administration fights that he often deserved a co-byline. Or that being known as a dissenter from administration policy only undermines your standing and your credibility as a spokesman for the United States.
Powell was the least-traveled secretary of state in 30 years, for a couple of reasons. One was that he wanted to stay home to be better able to engage in the vicious intramural fighting necessary to undermine the president's policy. The other was that he considered travel an inconvenience. That is understandable, even if Powell didn't have to deal, like the rest of us, with security lines and metal-detector wandings. But shouldn't it have been a sign he was better suited to be secretary of the interior?
Rice, in contrast, supports the president's policy and is loyal to him, so she has no need to hang around in Washington to indulge in bureaucratic back-stabbing. She is also young and vigorous, a workout obsessive who could beat most other foreign ministers in the world in a 5k race and is up to the rigors of foreign travel.
This is a good thing, because Rice's trip proved the Woody Allen truism that 80 percent of life is showing up. If you are willing to stand before a potentially hostile foreign audience (in Paris, of all places!) and explain U.S. policy, or stand next to a foreign counterpart and take skeptical questions from reporters, your very act of being there shows a level of attention and caring that wins points. And when you are as winsome as Condi Rice, you might actually move some people. Has Gerhard Schroeder yet fully recovered from his Rice-induced swoon?
Indeed, it would take a heart of stone and an utter disregard for symbolism not to be a little moved at the images of Rice shaking hands with foreign dignitaries. Those pictures fairly yelled -- "Look, this is America!" The message of her ascension to the top echelon of the U.S. government couldn't have come at a better time. When Bush is trying to reform a part of the world that has the lowest possible regard for women, Rice implicitly says women are as capable as men. When Bush wants Middle Eastern governments to respect pluralism and people of all faith and ethnicities, Rice implicitly says race and creed needn't matter. When Bush is extolling the power of freedom and American ideals, Rice implicitly says liberty and respect for human dignity can triumph over injustice, as they did in her 1950s-era Birmingham, Ala.
She, in other words, is a secretary of state to make us proud. Her trip therefore coupled national pride with diplomatic nicities. What a combination.