(2 of 7)
Much about Rice's six months on the job has been surprising. Her enthusiasm for travel has transformed her image from that of a remote presidential consigliere to a glamorous, globe-trotting operator with first-name-only cachet. (A Madrid hairdresser has started offering "the Condi flip.") "She has a little bit of star power," says Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, "which isn't a bad thing to have." But she can also play tough: in Sudan last month, Rice demanded an apology from the Khartoum government after members of her traveling party were manhandled by Sudanese security agents; she got one within an hour. At home, Rice has wrested control over the tone and direction of U.S. foreign policy away from war-cabinet hard-liners, curbing their unilateralist bluster. She persuaded President George W. Bush to support negotiations with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs, though both countries have balked at offers from the U.S. and its allies. In the process, she has cemented her status as the President's most trusted lieutenant, a relationship that makes her the most influential Secretary of State in more than a decade. "In foreign policy, you've got everybody involved, and so unless you have that degree of confidence with the President, you can't be effective and activist," says Rice's deputy, Robert Zoellick. "That is the critical prerequisite, whether you're Henry Kissinger, whether you're Jim Baker, whether you're Condi Rice. She has that."
But by assuming the mantle as the chief exponent of the Bush foreign policy, she has also inherited responsibility for cleaning up its biggest calamity: the war in Iraq, which last week claimed the lives of 29 U.S. service members, bringing the total number of American dead to 1,829. Among U.S. commanders, the consensus is that U.S. and Iraqi forces are not capable of extinguishing the insurgency on the battlefield--which Rice acknowledged to TIME. "If you think about how to defeat an insurgency, you defeat it not just militarily but politically," she says. That has increased the burden on Rice to hammer out a political arrangement that can appeal to disaffected Sunnis and eventually allow the U.S. to beat a dignified retreat. "She's up to her ears" on Iraq, says a senior White House official. Rice was with Bush in Crawford, Texas, when he learned of the attack that killed 14 Marines last Wednesday. Throughout the week, she engaged in around-the-clock phone sessions with the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, discussing how to get Iraq's squabbling political factions to reach a compromise on a draft constitution by next Monday, the target date set last year by the U.S. When she met with TIME, Rice argued against focusing solely on the rising death toll. "It's a lot easier to see the violence and suicide bombing than to see the rather quiet political progress that's going on in parallel," she says.