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Rice still struggling for success after two years as top US diplomat
Yahoo News/AFP (France)
by David Millikin
December 28, 2006

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Condoleezza Rice wraps up her first two years as secretary of state with few diplomatic successes to show for her efforts and fewer signs she plans to change course to improve the record.

And yet, as Rice heads into 2007, the 52-year-old former academic should be at the top of her game for the last two years of President George W. Bush's administration.

She has seen off her longtime rival for Bush's ear, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

And the Bush administration is under pressure from all sides to use more diplomacy and less bluster in its foreign policy, a shift which should place Rice at the epicenter of decision-making.

But since she took over as America's top diplomat on January 26, 2005 with an agenda to promote freedom and democracy around the globe, Rice has been shadowed by the failure of that plan on its biggest stage: Iraq.

The violence in Iraq, and the Bush administration's refusal to bring rivals Syria and Iran into efforts to stabilize the country, are widely blamed for the broader failure of US policy in the Middle East -- where Lebanon teeters on the brink of civil war and Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts languish.

Elsewhere, Rice's globe-trotting -- 37 overseas trips totalling nearly 500,000 miles (800,000 kilometers) -- has yielded little concrete success, with her few diplomatic victories clouded by poor or no follow-up.

A UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea after it exploded its first nuclear device in October was one major success -- rushed to a vote with unusual speed and unequaled cooperation from a China long loath to punish its client state.

The sanctions, and Chinese pressure, managed to coax North Korea back to disarmament negotiations this month.

But the five-day session ended in deadlock, with US diplomats admitting there was no real indication Pyongyang intends to give up its nuclear mantle.

Rice also succeeded in pushing through a UN resolution slapping sanctions on Iran over its suspect nuclear program.

But the measure passed only after months of wrangling with Russia and China knocked most of the teeth out of the sanctions package and left little prospect of Washington being able to obtain tougher follow-up action that will almost certainly be needed to force Iran to back down.

Efforts to halt what Washington has branded genocide in Sudan's Darfur region have fared no better, with the government of President Omar al-Beshir defying US-backed demands for UN peacekeepers to halt nearly four years of ethnic cleansing.

And most recently in Somalia, weak US support for negotiations on a power-sharing deal between the Western-backed government and Islamist militia left the door open for a military offensive by US ally Ethiopia, which is pushing another country towards civil war.

US foreign policy experts said Rice must shoulder much of the blame for the lackluster diplomacy.

"Great secretaries of state have compelling views of the world and/or are effective negotiators -- Secretary Rice has so far demonstrated neither," said Aaron Miller, who advised six secretaries of state before joining the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank in Washington.

Even staunch supporters acknowledge that Rice, weighed down by the failed policy in Iraq, has little that is positive to show for her work so far.

"I don't know that there have been concrete advances" under Rice's diplomacy, said Joshua Muravchik of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, though he nevertheless went on to give her "high grades" for faithfully implementing Bush's policy agenda.

Rice has steadfastly rebuffed demands, most forcefully put forward by the high-powered Iraq Study Group, that she adopt a more flexible style of diplomacy that includes dealing with hostile players like Syria and Iran.

Whether or not she eventually follows that advice, Rice's best shot at achieving a major success in her remaining time as secretary of state is likely to focus on the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Her first trip in the new year will be to Israel and the Palestinian territories, as part of a new US initiative expected to be built around boosting moderate Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and gaining Arab support for fast-tracking the declaration of a Palestinian state.

Progress on the Middle East's most intractable conflict could be enough to save Rice's diplomatic reputation.

"Her challenge in the next two years is to find one consequential issue such as the Arab-Israeli peace process and make it work," said the Wilson Center's Miller.

"That alone would make her an effective and successful secretary."

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