Another Secretary Rice?

If Republicans get their way, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice won’t be promoted to secretary of State in President Obama’s second term after Hillary Clinton retires. While the brouhaha over Benghazi doesn’t appear to have damaged her, new details about Rice’s relationship with certain African governments when she was an official the Clinton State Department may yet doom her nomination.

The current situation recalls an earlier controversy over another African-American woman named Rice who was slated to become America’s top diplomat after holding a similarly high-level job in the administration. I’m talking, of course, about Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s choice to be secretary of State in his second term.

Democrats opposed elevating the White House national security adviser, citing her role in the invasion of Iraq on the faulty grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons on mass destruction. The Senate went on to confirm Rice 85-13, with the most negative votes cast against a secretary of State nominee since 1825.

All that was behind Rice as she embarked on her first official trip as secretary of State in February 2005. I was on Rice’s plane, covering the historic trip for USA TODAY. It was a whirlwind trip as we raced to 10 European and Middle Eastern capitals in six days: London, Berlin, Warsaw, Ankara, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Rome, Paris, Brussels and Luxembourg. I filed this report on her reception.

Surely the most memorable moment of the trip — other than a case of food poisoning that laid me low from Germany through Poland and into Turkey — was our stop in Rome. Although I had already been to the Eternal City as a tourist, it was nice to revisit the Pantheon for a private tour with the world’s most powerful diplomat (that’s me on the right listening intently to the docent):

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Afterward, the entire traveling press corps went to a nearby restaurant for a private, off-the-record dinner. Since Rice had already given the reporters on her inaugural trip signed world atlases, the journalists returned the favor by giving the rabid Cleveland Browns fan an autographed football. You can see where I signed just between her fingers:

Rice’s honeymoon wouldn’t last long. By the time I accompanied her overseas on a high-stakes mission in the summer of 2006 as yet another crisis in Lebanon raged, the mood had darkened considerably.

Israel Ceasefire, Circa 2006

President Obama has dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Cambodia to Israel to try to broker a ceasefire that will end the conflict in Gaza. The deepening violence, which comes as the administration is trying to pivot its foreign policy away from the Middle East and toward Asia, recalls a previous crisis in which America’s top diplomat shuttled between the two regions in a precarious balancing act.

In July 2006, I traveled with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she led a high-level U.S. diplomatic mission to end an earlier battle in which Islamic militants fired thousands of rockets over a border into Israel. Today the clash is with Hamas in Gaza, then it was Hezbollah in Lebanon. In each, the conflict quickly escalated with Israel’s superior firepower taking a disproportionate toll on its enemy and the international community demanding an end to hostilities.

Then as now there were questions about how hard the White House would press the warring factions to stop the conflict. Back then, the small traveling press corps secretly choppered from Cyprus into Beirut with Rice to meet with Lebanese leaders. Here is my  audio report from Beirut:

Next we were off to Jerusalem and Ramallah, where Rice huddled with here Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. Here is my audio update from Jerusalem:

Our next stop was Rome for a hastily convened meeting of representatives from 15 nations. The conference failed to end the fighting thanks to foot-dragging by President George W. Bush’s administration, which quietly favored giving Israel more time to pound Hezbollah’s forces before calling a truce. Listen to my audio report on the conference:

From Rome we were off to Malaysia for a previously scheduled forum of Southeast Asia nations. We would cool our heels for two days in Kuala Lumpur while backroom talks continued in the Middle East. Then it was back to Jerusalem once more before we headed home to Washington with a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, where we filed our last trip dispatches.

The UN Security Council would approve a ceasefire two weeks later. How the current crisis will end remains to be seen.