Just over a year ago I first heard former Clinton political operative Dick Morris spin out the case that Secretary of State Condi Rice had to run for president in 2008. Only Rice could stop the ascension of Hillary Clinton to the White House, a development the hyperventilating Morris clearly regarded as a national catastrophe.
Morris finds a great deal of Rice's supposed electability in her national security credentials. That, together with her natural popularity with women and minorities, should be enough to prevent Hillarocracy. But events this week show the Morris formula to be breaking down.
Rice's popularity among minorities still works. A new A.P.-AOL Black Voices poll finds Rice trailing only Jesse Jackson as America's "most important black leader." Rice was named by 11 percent of respondents, Jackson by 15 percent. However, Middle East diplomacy is proving much tougher for Rice to best than Al Sharpton or Oprah Winfrey.
Republican senators on Wednesday openly questioned Rice's version of events in the region. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) told Rice, "I think things are getting worse. I think they're getting worse in Iraq. I think they're getting worse in Iran."
On cue Rice announced a new $75 million program to support democracy in Iran, a big increase over the current $10 million now spent on such programs. The added funding would increase satellite television broadcasting into Iran by both the U.S. government and private Iranian-American groups and expand broadcasting by Radio Farda, the Prague-based Farsi station funded by the U.S. Congress. The State Department also says, somewhat cryptically, that the money will be used for "grants to non-governmental organizations for democracy-promotion activities in Iran."
Rice also placed the nuke-chasing regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad firmly outside the orbit of decent company. "They have now crossed a point where they are in open defiance of the international community," Rice said.
Taken together, these moves add up to an acceleration of yet another regime change policy for the Bush administration. This is probably still far too slow for the "faster please" wing of Mideast hawks, and $75 million is far too little, alone, to dislodge Ahmadinejad. But with Rice in control at Foggy Bottom, the influence of the dreaded "career diplomats" is muted. At least in Washington.
Next week Rice jets off to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to try and sell America's Iranian policy, which to many in the region will doubtless look a lot like America's Iraq policy circa 1998, minus the no-fly zones. It is a vital mission for Rice, one that may help determine if armed conflict with Iran can be avoided.
These sales-calls are the heavy-lifting portion of the Secretary of State's job, yet something that the various Draft Condi efforts usually ignore. Much more popular are the forceful Rice declarations against outlaw states, like the recent one calling out Iran and Syria for using those Danish cartoons to incite violence.
"I have no doubt that Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and have used this for their own purposes. The world ought to call them on it," Rice said. OK, called. Now what?
It is an odd disconnect. Rice evidently does not have to be a successful Secretary of State to become president—successful in the sense of actually causing other countries to support U.S. goals and policies. An international scold and domestic bulwark against the "internationalists" of the CIA will do.
The true believers, Dick Morris among them, need to understand that this role is a very narrow base upon which to build presidential aspirations. Their time drafting and organizing would be better spent urging Dr. Rice to be the best Secretary of State she can be. Assuming, that is, she does not find herself President of the Senate in the near future.