(6 of 7)
As a student of history, Rice is grimly aware of how many diplomatic reputations have sunk in the morass of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But if the U.S. intends to contain the twin threats it faces in the Middle East--an ethnic implosion in Iraq and a nuclear Iran--it needs help from the rest of the neighborhood, which will be easier to secure if Rice can make headway on the Palestinian issue. "Even if the prospects for a deal are very low, getting the process going is helpful throughout the region," says a U.S. foreign-policy veteran. "It gives breathing space to moderate Arab governments, and it isolates the radicals in those countries. For the past four years, we've been doing the opposite."
The most optimistic diplomats, including Rice, hope that U.S. engagement on Palestine could lead to other areas of cooperation among "moderate" Middle East forces, all of whom have an interest in checking the influence of Shi'ite Iran and subduing radical Sunni groups aligned with al-Qaeda. If that happens, the U.S. may be able to build a security arrangement that could limit some of the damage done by the misadventure in Iraq. "What [the Bush team] may be stumbling toward is grand strategy by accident, that includes diplomacy, economic muscle, military force and all of your capacity to lead other countries," says a former U.S. ambassador. But can an unpopular, lame-duck President, and a team with such a record of ineptitude, pull it off? "It is still going to be a very bumpy road," he says.
At least some of the doubts trace back to Rice herself. At 52, she is no longer the ascending star she was at the start of the Bush presidency. Rice's influence with Bush is considerable, thanks to their personal bond and the departure of her rival, Donald Rumsfeld; but few believe she will ever usurp Vice President Dick Cheney's policymaking supremacy. Her associates say she is serious about retreating from public life at the end of Bush's term. For someone so devoted to regimen--up at 4:45 a.m. when she is in Washington, she works out, eats breakfast and is at her desk by 6:30--she has struggled to impose discipline on the State Department. She went for months last year without a No. 2, before naming John Negroponte to the job last month. One of her most trusted advisers, Philip Zelikow, left in early January. Many in the foreign-policy community believe her team is thin and uncreative. "She has a weak bench," says a G.O.P. congressional aide. "And she can't be everywhere."
That points to the larger dilemma for Rice. For all her ambition, she is caught in a second-term Administration whose political capital is dwindling. A rise in the body count in Iraq or more overt provocations toward Iran could bring the White House into open confrontation with a hostile Congress intent on restraining Bush's range of movement. And Rice's decision to redouble her efforts in the Middle East means she will be less able to attend to other issues on which U.S. leadership could produce success--such as stopping genocide in Africa or fighting poverty in the developing world or tackling global climate change. Without sustained attention to those problems from America's top diplomat, the world won't make much progress toward finding solutions.