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The trouble is, neither Rice nor anyone else in the Administration knows exactly where its policy is heading. The push by Rice and Khalilzad to get the Iraqis to meet next Monday's deadline at all costs has meant that many of the major issues that still divide Iraqis have merely been kicked down the road. Equally unclear is how long the Administration plans to keep U.S. troops in Iraq. Even as Khalilzad suggested last week that the U.S. is discussing with the Iraqis the possibility of a partial withdrawal as early as next year, Bush said that "it makes no sense" to set any timetable for leaving. Rice told TIME she believes the insurgents are "losing steam" as a political force, even though their ability to kill and maim at will appears undiminished. When Rice points to "rather quiet political progress" while the country remains embroiled in chaos, even some of her backers cringe. Says a Republican elder statesman: "I don't have any sense of where she thinks she's going on Iraq."
Rice's admirers point to her intellect and perfectionist drive and conclude that if anyone can figure out what to do in Iraq, it's Rice. "She's done all the reading," says a British official. "You're sure she's seen all the angles." If the demands of the job are straining her, she doesn't like to show it. For those who knew Rice before she joined the Administration, it's striking how little Washington seems to have changed her. (I met her as an undergraduate at Stanford more than 10 years ago, when Rice was provost there.) In person, Rice has a knack for immediately putting others at ease, asking about their lives before the conversation inevitably turns to hers. She fields questions by whispering, "Yeah," to signal she understands, then launches into answers so fluent that they almost sound rehearsed. It helps that she's working before everyone else: when she's in Washington, Rice rises at 4:45 a.m. and works out on the elliptical machine she keeps in her apartment at the Watergate. She eats a small breakfast and is at her desk by 6:30.
But she has never faced a challenge like this one. Although trained as a foreign policy realist who has argued the U.S. should act based on a cold calculus of national interest, rather than to advance ideological goals, Rice has more recently embraced Bush's gauzy belief that pursuing the ambitious aim of bringing political reform to the Arab world represents the best possible salve against the threat of Islamic terrorism. "What are your choices?" she asks. "Your choices are: to somehow reinstitute control, which would be against our principles, or to have faith in the democratic enterprise as one actually that is quite capable of overcoming difference." And yet while many Americans share Rice's desire to spread democracy in the Middle East, far fewer believe it's still worth the price the U.S. is paying to try to achieve it in Iraq. And so the biggest question facing the country's top diplomat is not so much whether she can spread the Bush doctrine but whether she can save it.