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Scary Thought: Is Condi Rice Our Last, Best Chance for Peace?

07/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Here's a scary thought: Condoleezza Rice might be our last, best chance for peace -- or at least for avoiding another disastrous war in the Middle East.

Vice President Dick Cheney is said to be very hot for "hot conflict" with Iran -- to the point of cozying up to al-Qaeda-linked groups in Iran.

As for Bush, who is unfettered by concerns about his political future, he is, according to Bill Kristol, more likely to strike Iran if he thinks Obama is going to win.

John McCain has called war with Iran "a possibility that is maybe closer to reality than we are discussing."

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said "The Iranian threat must be stopped by all possible means," including "drastic measures" that would be "devastating." And last week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak hinted that Israel was ready to attack, having "proven in the past that we are not deterred from acting when our vital interests are at stake."

For its part, Iran seems intent on puffing out its chest, exaggerating its ability to hit Israel with its Shahab missiles, and delivering the neocon hawks exactly the "see, we told you" evidence they've been longing for.

With all the tumblers for war falling into place, the question becomes: What will Condi do? Will she reprise her pitiful performance as Bush's National Security Adviser during the run up to the war in Iraq? Or will she fulfill the mission of her current office (she is, after all, Secretary of State)?

So far, the signs have not been promising. Following the Iranians' missile test last week, Rice, speaking at a news conference in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, warned: "We will defend our interests and defend our allies. We take very, very strongly our obligations to defend out allies and no one should be confused of that."

This follows a speech in front of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last month the New York Times described as "unusually sharp," with Rice "calling any dialogue with [Iran's] leaders pointless." "For the sake of peace," said Rice, "the world must not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons."

But, behind the scenes, Rice has been promoting a far more diplomatic approach to Iran than the Cheney-led hungry-for-war contingent inside the administration. And yesterday's report that Undersecretary of State William Burns will join a scheduled meeting between Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, and Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, is an indication that Rice's pro-diplomacy camp may have Bush's ear.

Once again on the record, Rice's Foggy Bottom team was quick to point out that that the meeting was a "one-time deal," with Rice telling Solana that Burns would only be going "to listen." Okay, but isn't listening the biggest part of diplomacy?

Rice is trying to have it three different ways: talking tough in a way that will please the neocon crowd while opening the door to negotiations while undercutting the value of that open door. Talking out of three different sides of your mouth is a neat trick for a sideshow performer -- but not for the Secretary of State.

Rice has always had a hard time deciding what role to play in the administration: foreign policy mentor, loyal war saleswoman ("we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud"), truth-challenged apologist (no one "could have predicted" terrorists flying airplanes into buildings before 9/11), full-throated cheerleader ("I'm proud of the decision of this administration to overthrow Saddam Hussein"), or office wife and enabling sycophant (in the wake of an underwhelming pre-war CIA presentation on WMD, Bush asked her about the war: "Should we do this?" "Yes," replied Rice without missing a beat.)

Author James Mann, in his book Rise of the Vulcans, says Rice was a major player in the Iraq debacle:

She had been the prime mover behind the drafting of a new National Security Strategy that laid the framework for a preventive war. She had served as the White House coordinator and as the president's closest adviser, throughout the entire Iraq operation. And she emerged after the war as the principal spokesman for the administration's expansive vision of its mission in the Middle East.

Despite this, she has largely managed to avoid the taint associated with the war's biggest proponents and, at 53, stands as one of the few high-ranking Bush administration officials who continues to have a bright future in politics. If, that is, she is able to salvage something of the present.

So what is it going to be, Madame Secretary?

This time around, it's not going to be enough for Rice to keep her head out of the line of fire. Her lack of effective diplomacy as Secretary of State has been a disaster. And trotting out lines about only listening and not talking at the negotiating table is simply laughable.

If she doesn't want to fall into the same trap as her predecessor Colin Powell -- who now claims he was privately anguished about letting himself be used in the run-up to Iraq but publicly carried Cheney's water (and that vial of fake anthrax) -- she needs to do something dramatic. Either convince the president what a catastrophe attacking Iran would be. Or, failing that, break with the administration and do the noble thing by resigning while it still might make a difference (see Powell, George Tenet, and Scott McClellan for an object lesson in speaking out when it no longer makes a difference).

Condi Rice has frequently been called the "most powerful woman in the world." It's time for her to do the world a favor and prove it.

Very Short List
Very Short List is a cool daily email that turns the spotlight on a single deserving but under-publicized item from the entertainment world. I provided today's check-this-out VSL suggestion -- Night of the Gun, a stunning memoir from New York Times columnist David Carr. Here it is.