Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Beacon No. 27: Thirty-Three Thousand Miles and Counting


Like every president since Franklin Roosevelt, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may soon be judged by the dread First Hundred Days yardstick. In mid-May, dozens if not hundreds of newspaper writers worldwide will consider what Rice has and hasn't accomplished in the 100 days since her January 28 swearing-in.

It's important to assess the nation's most important diplomat, as she is more responsible than even the president for explaining America's message to foreign leaders and their publics. But I'm impatient and don't want to wait for a barrage of 100-days articles. Trying to stay ahead of the curve, here's a quick look at her first 55 days.

Rice's confirmation hearing went smoothly thanks to the Republican majority in the Senate, and she managed not to lose her temper when baited by Democrat Barbara Boxer. But she didn't answer some of Boxer's questions, either, implying the senator was questioning her integrity by asking Rice to admit mistakes regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Choosing to frame political or policy attacks as personal attacks is a first-term reflex that's no longer necessary.

Consistent Action, Terrible Timing
On March 7 the U.S. pulled out of the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a 1969 agreement that requires signatories to let the International Court of Justice in Vienna decide whether a foreign national was denied proper access to consular officials if he or she is arrested in another country.

The apparent trigger for the pullout is an ICJ ruling that 51 Mexican nationals on death row in the U.S. were illegally denied access to Mexican consuls, and had the right to a new hearing. The Bush administration decided on February 28 to grant the new hearings, but then pulled out of the Optional Protocol a week later.

The U.S. proposed the Optional Protocol in 1963 to increase its citizens' chances of getting a fair shake in questionable overseas justice systems, and later used it to successfully sue Iran over its holding of 52 American hostages. Still, the pullout is consistent with the Bush administration's long-term pattern of downplaying, resisting or withdrawing from international conventions.

But the Optional Protocol move was poorly timed, coming just hours before Secretary Rice's March 10 meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox, a guy who is already feeling ignored by a Bush administration that, pre-9/11, took pains to befriend President Fox and highlight Mexican-American relations. Mexican citizens might think the U.S. is pulling out of an entire international treaty so it can more easily execute future Mexican felons, and that's not the kind of message that they or Fox—who has a big say in how porous the southern U.S. border is—need to hear right now.

To her credit, Rice assured Mexican officials during her March 10 visit that the rights of Mexican nationals would be respected in future prosecutions, and Fox is visiting the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas today; but you'd think the U.S. could have waited a couple of months to pull out of the Optional Protocol.

Walking the Talk
As I'd written previously (see Beacon No. 25: Secretary Rice Not-Goes to Cairo), Rice recently took pains to snub Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak over the jailing of opposition leader Ayman Noor by canceling a much-anticipated visit to Egypt. Realpolitik verdict: C-minus, we need Mubarak on our side! Walking-the-talk verdict, A-plus for acting on your ideals.

The Home Front, or, Backstabbing 'R' Us
Time magazine weighs in with an unusually favorable article about Rice, quoting several unnamed officials on Rice's ability to secure her back—unlike her predecessor, Colin Powell.

For example, John Bolton, apparently responsible for undermining Powell while he was Powell's putative deputy, has become Someone Else's Problem by being appointed ambassador to the United Nations. Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith are no longer major factors at the Department of Defense, causing Donald Rumsfeld to tread more lightly in policymaking.

The result is that, whether these personnel changes are Rice's doing or not, she and U.S. foreign policy are the beneficiaries: The U.S. will present a more unified foreign-policy face to the world, and Time suggests that world leaders are already viewing Rice's words as the official position of the U.S.

Ain't Too Proud to Be Shot At
Like Donald Rumsfeld, Rice seems to have no problem heading to places where lots of people really do want her dead, rather than just cashiered. In the past week she's hit Afghanistan and Pakistan, doing media interviews, visiting troops and talking with ministers and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. She also visited the friendlier environs of China, Japan, South Korea and India on the same trip, being polite yet firm and direct about U.S. interests, and reportedly is in command of her material in each country.

All this is in addition to separate, highly regarded swings through Europe and the Middle East in February and early March.

Your Tax Dollars at Work
Hoping to make sure Karen Hughes has enough money to work with if she is confirmed as Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, Rice has requested $326 million for public diplomacy efforts in the fiscal year that begins this October, plus $430 million for educational and cultural exchange programs.

Summing Up, for Now
I liked and respected Colin Powell for being a hard-working straight-shooter, perhaps being too strongly influenced by his inspirational My American Journey. But as Secretary of State, Powell was hobbled by infighting with Donald Rumsfeld in the wake of 9/11 and reportedly was reluctant to leave the U.S. for fear of knives flying at his back. If the gifted Rice can leverage a mostly positive start with foreign leaders while maintaining President Bush's unequivocal support, I've got much more optimism for the next 1,100 days of U.S. foreign policy than I had for the previous 1,100.

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