Condoleezza Rice is extraordinarily talented but does she have the guts to contradict her closest ally? asks Jennifer Mathers
Condoleezza Rice exemplifies the American dream. She has risen from modest beginnings to nomination to one of the highest offices in the land. She has achieved this through intelligence, the support and encouragement of her family, a strong work ethic, deep religious faith and an unshakeable belief in the transforming power of education. She has battled and overcome racial and gender barriers. By the time of her 50th birthday earlier this year, she had already occupied influential positions in two different presidential administrations, at a major research university and on the boards of some of America's wealthiest and most powerful corporations. Subject to confirmation by the US Senate (which is likely to be a formality, given the Republicans' majority in that body), she will become the 66th US Secretary of State and the first African-American woman to hold that office.
Rice was born in Alabama into the grim segregation of the American South in the 1950s. She is the daughter and granddaughter of Presbyterian ministers who seized the limited opportunities available to them to advance through education. In an address to the graduating class of Vanderbilt University, Rice described growing up "in an atmosphere of hostility, and contempt, and cold stares, and the ever-present threat of violence". One of her playmates was killed when a black church was bombed in 1963 just a short distance from the church where her father preached and her family worshiped. Within five years, her family had moved northwest, to the safer and colder climate of Denver, Colorado.
Embarking on her undergraduate studies at the University of Denver early, at the age of 15, Rice went on to earn a bachelors degree in political science, then a masters from the University of Notre Dame before returning to Denver for her PhD. Along the way she abandoned her long-held ambition to become a concert pianist and instead embraced the politics and foreign policy of the Soviet Union and the other East European countries. Stanford University snapped her up in 1981 as a freshly minted PhD. During the 1980s, Rice became known as a scholar in her chosen field, but while her academic writing was well researched and often insightful, it did not transform understanding of the region or make major conceptual advances.
Her most significant contribution was in an administrative capacity. During much of the 1990s she served as provost at Stanford University, with responsibilities for the university's academic programme and for a $1.5 billion (£780 million) a year budget. Since the mid-1980s, Rice's career has been characterised chiefly by public service, including her role on the National Security Council during the Bush senior Administration from 1989-91.
In addition to her extensive government service, Rice has moved in the highest circles of American capitalism and philanthropy, with seats on the boards of organisations such as Chevron (which famously named its largest oil tanker after her).
Throughout the first term of the current Bush Administration, Rice was very close to the Bushes and has been described by some observers as one of the family. She shares the deep Christian faith of the Bushes, which is reportedly a prerequisite for the President to regard a staff member as an insider - as well as their ideological and party political perspectives.
Moreover, as a single, childless woman with few close living relatives, it may have been a natural progression for Rice to have been included in Bush family gatherings and for professional ties to have developed into personal links.
Rice's record as National Security Adviser during the first term of George W. Bush's presidency indicates that she is intensely loyal to the President and is also very much a team player. Most of her public statements take the form of explaining and robustly defending the Administration's policies.
She has been consistently firm but also cautious - making no concessions or apologies and refusing to be drawn into making comments that might cause her to stray from the official line.
There is a noticeable contrast between what Rice says when her role is to act as a policy spokesperson and when she is speaking in a more personal capacity. Rice's remarks to the US National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the US in April 2004 painted a simplistic picture of America under attack from radical, freedom-hating terrorists out to destroy the US and the civilised world. She used language that could have been borrowed from one of the President's speeches on the war on terror. On similar occasions, she has used Bush's phrase "bad guys" to refer to al-Qaeda, which is an extraordinary choice of words for a distinguished professor of political science.
At other times, though, Rice has revealed a more nuanced understanding of international relations and the causes of terrorism. Speaking at the US Institute of Peace in August 2004, she acknowledged that anti-American feeling and distrust of the US have their roots in the policies that Washington has pursued. But even when speaking in a more personal capacity, Rice is careful to express these subtly "alternative" explanations in such a way as to present the Bush Administration's policies in the best possible light: mistakes were made in the past, but the current policy direction is correct.
During the course of Rice's tenure as National Security Adviser, her views on the role of the US in the wider world have undergone a considerable shift, but one that mirrors the changed perspective of the Administration and of the President personally. Despite initial scepticism, she has fully embraced the notion that America must take the lead role in spreading freedom and democracy to other parts of the world. For the Administration as a whole, this position is no doubt bound up with the need to justify regime change in Afghanistan and especially Iraq. For Rice, however, it has become closely interwoven with her own history and experiences. She has asserted that she and others who have enjoyed the advantages of life in America - and in particular the advantages of higher education - have an obligation to "further the same democratic processes here and abroad that has made (our) own opportunities possible".
In some respects, the close relationship between Rice and George W. Bush could be a positive feature of American foreign policy during the second Bush term. There are unlikely to be significant divisions of opinion or approach between the Secretary of State and the White House, as has been the case during much of the time Colin Powell has occupied the post.
But while the closeness between Rice and Bush is likely to make for a comfortable working relationship and a unity of purpose between the presidency and the Administration's foreign policy arm, there is a danger it could significantly reduce the independence of Rice's office and of the State Department itself. While Rice will be in an excellent position to make her views known to the President, it is not at all clear whether she will be able or willing to tell him uncomfortable but important truths, especially if they contradict his opinions on an issue or course of action.
Bob Woodward's accounts of foreign and defence policymaking in the first term of George W. Bush's presidency, Bush at War and Plan of Attack , depict Rice as the most conciliatory figure in the inner circle, seeking to smooth the President's path and to understand and mirror his views rather than expressing distinctive opinions of her own. This particular role may have reflected Rice's position as National Security Adviser, which does have a significant coordinating function. On the other hand, gender relations may be an important part of the explanation, too - women often find themselves playing the role of conciliator in both domestic and professional settings, and it is difficult to imagine some of the previous (male) holders of the office of National Security Adviser, such as Henry Kissinger, showing such a reluctance to express their own views. Although the dynamics between Rice and Bush may be considerably different once she is leading a larger, more independent organisation with a more distinct identity of its own, there is a strong possibility that their personal relations will stay fixed.
Rice has enormous potential to shape US foreign policy to better reflect the subtleties and nuances of international relations in the 21st century.
Whether she will achieve that potential or take the more familiar and comfortable path of echoing the President's views will be one of the major questions for the Bush Administration's second term.
Jennifer G. Mathers is a senior lecturer in the Department of International Politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and a co-editor of the journal Minerva: Women and War , published by Taylor and Francis.