As President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice was known for her iron fist. But for her first international trip as secretary of state, she sheathed that fist in a velvet glove-then blushed strategically as the world's leaders pressed it to their lips.
With her expensive suits, passable French, and intellectual credentials, Ms. Rice seemed bent on winning the charm offensive. One French political scientist even coined a Pentagon-esque code name for her new diplomatic technique: Operation Seduction.
Following in the footsteps of Colin Powell, the former secretary beloved in Europe for his dovish leanings, Ms. Rice could have fallen flat on her face, as some were predicting. Instead she soared, winning kudos, concessions, and, just maybe, a bit of peace in the Middle East. Her triumphant tour is certain to smooth the way for Mr. Bush himself, who will head to Europe for a NATO summit on Feb. 21.
In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair called her "Condi," as if the two were old friends. In Berlin, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder laughed like a schoolboy after a meeting that went too long by half. In Paris, Mayor Bertrand Delanoe invited her back to play a piano concert with the Paris Orchestra, while Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, before a phalanx of reporters, gushed: "Dear Condi, and I'd like to say this in public, how convinced I am that the world works better when the Americans and the Europeans cooperate."
Coming from France, America's harshest critic over the conflict in Iraq, those were kind words indeed. And Ms. Rice had kind words for the French, as well. On Feb. 8, during the keynote speech of her tour, she stressed that while America and France sometimes disagree, "we disagree as friends. . . . It is time to turn away from the disagreements of the past," she said. "It is time to open a new chapter in our relationship, and a new chapter in our alliance."
If "Old Europe" appears ready to turn the page on that new chapter, Ms. Rice knows she can hardly take all the credit. Her tour, after all, came on the heels of the election in Iraq. Even French President Jacques Chirac called President Bush after the voting to offer his congratulations on the remarkable achievement. In a further sign of fence-mending, the two presidents agreed to meet face-to-face when Mr. Bush travels to Brussels later this month.
With President Bush returned to office for another four years and with democracy taking tenuous hold in the Middle East, European leaders appear to be looking for opportunities to make nice with America. By touring Europe with an olive branch, Ms. Rice presented just such an opportunity, and the results were measured in more than mere words. Germany, for instance, announced it would help Iraq write a constitution and set up government ministries, while France said it would renew pressure on Syria to withdraw 14,000 troops from Lebanon.
As welcome as those gestures may be, they could hardly compare to the news coming out of the Middle East following Ms. Rice's stops in Israel and the West Bank: At a Feb. 8 summit between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the two sides announced a ceasefire while they search for a permanent peace. In a gesture of goodwill, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lifted a travel ban in the West Bank and invited Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to visit his private ranch in southern Israel.
Ms. Rice hailed the breakthrough. "We are acting to help Israelis and Palestinians seize this chance," she said. "Success is not assured, but America is resolute: This is the best chance for peace we are likely to see for years to come." Days earlier she had signaled the Bush administration's support for Mr. Abbas by delivering $40 million in aid and committing a U.S. general to oversee reform and training of Palestinian security forces.
At the same time, the secretary had harsh words for Syria, the region's chief troublemaker. She warned that Syria risked being "isolated" if it continued to support hard-line Palestinian terrorists. "I can't say it strongly enough. You can't say on one hand that you want a process of peace and on the other hand support the people who are determined to blow it up."
European leaders may have cringed at the blunt language, but the world took notice. Beneath the velvet, the iron fist was as firm as ever.