The Magazine


Travels with the new secretary of state.

Apr 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 27 • By JONATHAN KARL
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Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.

--George W. Bush, January 20, 2005

WHEN THE LEADING OPPOSITION FIGURE in Egypt was arrested on questionable charges in late January, Condoleezza Rice saw a perfect test of President Bush's inaugural promise to stand with democratic reformers around the world. Egyptian authorities jailed Ayman Nour just nine days after Bush's inaugural address. "They couldn't have picked a worse time to do this," Rice told Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council when she heard the news. Indeed. Rice first directed State Department spokesman Richard Boucher to make an uncharacteristically blunt statement. "We are concerned by the signal that the arrest sends," Boucher said, warning the Egyptians against "rough treatment" of Nour and noting, "He is one of Egypt's most prominent opposition leaders." Two weeks later, with Nour still in prison, Rice gave Hosni Mubarak's government the diplomatic equivalent of a kick in the teeth.

At the end of a meeting at the State Department with Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Gheit and a sizable contingent of Egyptian and U.S. officials, Rice made her move. She asked everybody--except Gheit, the Egyptian ambassador, and David Satterfield of the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs Bureau--to leave the room. No note-takers, no posturing. Just blunt talk. "She shot him over Ayman Nour, just shot him," said a source familiar with the discussion. Rice's message was unambiguous: Nour's arrest threatened to poison U.S.-Egyptian relations. If he were not released, she warned, she might cancel plans for an upcoming trip to Cairo. Gheit said the Nour case was working its way through the Egyptian legal system and U.S. pressure would be unhelpful. This phase of the meeting lasted more than 20 minutes, as reporters waited for Rice, now uncharacteristically late, to appear at a joint press conference with Gheit. Stung by the bluntness of Rice's criticism, the Egyptians insisted she not mention Nour's name at the press conference.

She didn't have to say his name. When a reporter asked whether she had talked about Nour's imprisonment in the meeting, Rice avoided diplomatic niceties: "Yes, I did raise our concerns, our very strong concerns about this case," she said. "I did talk at some length about the importance of this issue to the United States, to the American administration, to the American Congress, to the American people." Visibly shaken, Gheit stood silently at Rice's side. Nour remained in jail, and Rice cancelled her long-planned trip to Egypt.

If her first months in office are any indication, Secretary Rice's State Department is going to be radically different from Colin Powell's. Rice has forbidden her senior staff to make even off-the-record comparisons between her and Powell, but they don't need to. Rice's senior advisers like to say that she will be an effective secretary of state because when people talk to her they believe they are talking to the president. Powell may have been respected around the world, but he was viewed as out of step with the administration. As a result, when he spoke to a foreign leader, there was often a nagging question: Is Colin Powell speaking for the Bush administration or is he speaking for himself? Nobody asks that question about Condoleezza Rice. So when Rice hits somebody, it stings.

Rice's proximity to the president, combined with the sense of urgency she brings to her new job, has turned the State Department into a political power center again, the kind of place where Karen Hughes, one of President Bush's two or three closest advisers, would take a third-tier job. Even Dina Powell, who as director of White House personnel had no shortage of opportunities in the administration, chose to go to work for Rice as an assistant secretary of state. The State Department has been something of a political backwater for more than a decade. In the Clinton years, Warren Christopher was so inactive that a running joke among Foreign Service officers during his tenure was to complain about something and add, "None of this would be happening if Warren Christopher were alive." Madeleine Albright traveled more, but that only contributed to the perception that she was out of the loop and AWOL when the major national security decisions were being made by the National Security Council. And in George W. Bush's first term, Powell made his biggest headlines when he was at odds with the White House.