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Powell and Rice: Opposites, but Not Opponents

Washington Talk

James Dao
The New York Times


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WASHINGTON, June 20 -- Washington loves a good rivalry, and the Bush administration has had more than its share: the Powell and Rumsfeld show, Armitage versus Wolfowitz, State against Defense.

And now, could it be? Condi versus Colin? Don't be so sure.

To many in this town, President Bush's decision to anoint National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to be his "personal representative" to peace talks in the Middle East would seem to undermine the administration's senior foreign policy adviser, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

As early as next week, Mr. Bush is expected to send Ms. Rice to the Middle East, where Mr. Powell met with Israeli and Palestinian officials today, administration officials said.

Could her trip be an indication that the White House doesn't trust Mr. Powell to be tough enough with the Palestinians a complaint frequently heard from the Israelis and the Republican right?

Some Democrats say privately that it is, and they contend Mr. Powell must be fuming over Ms. Rice's new role. After all, President Clinton once considered naming his national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, to be his Middle East envoy. But he backed down out of concern that Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright would resign in protest, former Clinton administration officials said.

But people inside the Bush administration say Ms. Rice and Mr. Powell's relationship is far more complicated than that. Mr. Powell, who held Ms. Rice's job in the Reagan administration, clearly considers himself both her mentor and friend. While he is not above being competitive with her, he sees her role in the peace effort as potentially bolstering him rather than undercutting him, those people say.

"It's really something that we've needed for some time," a State Department official said of Ms. Rice's role in the peace talks. "How many times do we have to hear from the Israelis that this is Colin Powell's road map? Having Condi involved gives us legitimacy."

Martin S. Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel who is now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said it was always clear that a peace settlement could be reached only once President Bush became personally engaged. For that reason, Ms. Rice's leading role need not be viewed as a slap at Mr. Powell, he said.

"When Sharon hears from Powell, he hears the State Department, and immediately goes and checks it with the White House," said Mr. Indyk, referring to the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. "And he's been encouraged to operate that way. Now, the president has decided to be the godfather of this effort, and Condi Rice has become his road map capo di capo."

Still, Mr. Powell sometimes seems to resent suggestions that he is ancillary to the peace effort. When asked recently why Mr. Sharon had accepted the road map in principle, he couldn't resist bragging a bit to reporters, saying: "It was obviously my visit" to the Middle East that broke the logjam.

At the same time, the ever pragmatic Mr. Powell, 66, does not seem threatened by Ms. Rice, 48. He once said he regarded her "like a daughter," a comment that seemed more genuinely affectionate than condescending. She stayed with the Powells at their Virginia home on visits to Washington in the 1990's. At least at the State Department, Ms. Rice is seen as a quiet ally inside the Oval Office.

"They have a very good relationship," a State Department official said. "I think she's found herself on Colin Powell's side more often than not."

According to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, it was Ms. Rice who helped arrange private meetings between Mr. Powell and Mr. Bush last year after Mr. Powell learned that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld had been holding periodic one-on-one sessions with the president. It is widely believed that Ms. Rice played a pivotal role in persuading Mr. Bush to follow Mr. Powell's advice to seek a United Nations resolution on Iraq last year.

Their personalities couldn't be more different. She is the perfectionist, a former A student, concert pianist and figure skater who speaks in long paragraphs as precisely punctuated as a doctoral dissertation.

He is the regular guy from the South Bronx, a less-than-stellar student who went into the Army after the R.O.T.C. program at City College. He is as outwardly good natured and easy going as she is hard-charging.

Indeed, Ms. Rice's steely ambition seems at times to amuse him. Once asked if he didn't harbor hopes of becoming the nation's first black president, Mr. Powell simply smiled and said: "Talk to Condi about that."


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