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Red gown power
by John Hall
Media General News Service


March 16, 2005

Washington - The best crack at last weekend's Gridiron Dinner - the annual assemblage of the governmental high and mighty brought together by a group of journalists - was President Bush's. He said when his predecessor, Bill Clinton, woke up from surgery, he was surrounded by loved ones - Hillary, Chelsea and "my dad."

Bush's father and Clinton, the "tsunami soulmates," have become as familiar on some overseas newscasts as the current president. But they are about to be replaced at least in some parts of the world by "the red gown diplomat."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice showed up in a stunning red dress at the Gridiron. It created such buzz that she spent the entire weekend denying she was launching a presidential campaign.

We do get smitten here in Washington, don't we? So little glamour.

Dr. Rice is the perfect antidote to John Foster Dulles, Warren Christopher and other gray ghosts of Foggy Bottom who have shaped our mental image of the American diplomat. As she launches her second major excursion overseas this weekend - this one to major capitals of Asia - Rice will be the center of attention in half the world, and at times all of it.

Her mission, unlike so many trips of her predecessor, Colin Powell, will involve high-volatility potential crises that directly impact Americans. The India-Pakistan dispute over nuclear weapons, which Powell skillfully mediated with time-consuming patience, was a drop-dead issue for all of humanity, but somehow it never rose to as big a crisis for Americans as it did in South Asia.

Rice, however, brought broiling controversies with her almost everywhere she visited this week.

The biggest one was North Korea's nuclear weapons capability. On the flight from Washington, Rice told reporters some new saber rattling by North Korea on the eve of her Asian trip was just an effort to "change the subject."

So, what is the subject?

The six-party talks to get North Korea to give up whatever nuclear weapons it already has, said Rice. Pyongyang is trying to get out of the talks.

She is visiting three of the countries, China, South Korea and Japan, that are party to the talks. Since they are in range of North Korean missiles, all have an urgent need to frog march North Korea back to the table.

It is mainly China that "the red gown diplomat" needed to squeeze this week to get North Korea's "dear leader" Kim Jong Il to listen.

Kim may only listen to China. It is not U.S. power, but the power of North Korea's hulking neighbor that will decide the nuclear issue.

Rice probably isn't pressing Beijing very hard for now. One reason is the diversion of U.S. attention to another matter: China's alarming new policy toward Taiwan _ in effect, a phony legal justification for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan if Taiwan ever declares independence. Rice has appealed for restraint and has also talked about "troubling aspects" of Beijing's military and economic growth.

This by itself would be quite enough for a first-year secretary of state on her first trip to Asia after staying up late to watch a bunch of dancing and singing news people. But heap on top of it the troubles the United States is beginning to have _ not with its tyrannical enemies but with its friends.

Rice's visit to Afghanistan was the first and still the best result of the U.S. response overseas to the 9/11 attack - the rout of the Taliban and its replacement by an elected government. What a moment her visit was for Muslim women, treated like chattel by the Taliban.

Yet Afghanistan's economy is on the verge of being consumed by narcotics and the poppy-growing industry.

And Pakistan - a critical nation in the war on terrorism that is nuclear-armed - still has a ruler, Pervez Musharraf, who wears a military uniform to work every day. Rice told him she wanted a commitment for Pakistan to be on a path to democracy, but it looks like the path will be for men on horseback for a while.

Here, Rice has become Washington's most dazzling figure. As secretary of state, she remains an enigma.

John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,


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