RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Middle East Peace Conference next week in Annapolis is in many ways a special project of the secretary of state. Condoleezza Rice hopes it will relaunch the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and should, she says, be judged a success just for that. Condoleezza Rice has been promising to do all she can to help the two sides reach an agreement by the time she leaves office. Many analysts see this as part of her effort to leave a legacy other than the war in Iraq.
NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN: Secretary Rice bristles when asked if she is trying to create a positive legacy, saying there are much easier things to do than deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She's also reluctant to be self-reflective in public. Though, she does think her upbringing in the segregated South during the Civil Rights Movement gives her a better understanding of the troubles facing Israelis and Palestinians.
Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. State Department): When people don't have a hopeful vision before them or the possible resolution of their difficulties by peaceful means, then they can be attracted to violence and to separatism. And that does come out of my own background.
KELEMEN: This is how she explained some of her personal motivations for delving into the Middle East peace process. But most foreign policy observers see strategic factors at work - the realization that the Israeli-Palestinian issue needs to be addressed if Washington wants Arab support on Iraq or Iran.
Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution says the School of Hard Knocks has brought Rice around to this more realistic approach to the Middle East.
Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (The Brookings Institution): If she has now come to the conclusion, as I think she has, that without a process, everything else is going to grind to a halt and you're going to see the Iranians continue to be the ascendant power and you're going to see al-Qaida continue to recover and become resurgent based on their resentment over Israel, then she's moving in the right direction.
KELEMEN: Ever since she took the helm at the State Department, Rice has returned in some areas to her more realist roots. She's helped to rebuild friendships in Europe, backing the so far unsuccessful European negotiating effort with Iran. She also gave her top diplomat on Asia a freer hand to negotiate a deal with North Korea.
Critics on the right, like the Bush administration's former ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, sees a secretary in search of legacy, caving on key principles.
Mr. JOHN BOLTON (Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.): I think what you see on all three of these areas is the embodiment of the same policy of the State Department bureaucracy have been advocating throughout the administration. And the difference is that Secretary Rice is now advocating these positions as well, and she is effectively the only voice in the president's ear on them.
KELEMEN: At a recent breakfast at the American Enterprise Institute, Bolton joked that he's still hoping President Bush will return to his gut instincts when it comes to North Korea, that the U.S. shouldn't reward bad behavior.
Mr. BOLTON: That's why I still have a candle lit in my home to the prospect that he'll say this is all going badly wrong.
KELEMEN: Critics on the other side say Rice is now just doing what former Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to do on many of these issues, perhaps too late.
Bruce Riedel of Brookings says part of Rice's legacy will be the role she played as national security adviser when the White House undercut Powell, including on the Middle East. Now, Riedel says Rice is facing a test that many secretaries before her have taken.
Mr. RIEDEL: This is will be a major test of whether she leaves the office of the secretary of state having moved the ball forward or having fumbled it.
KELEMEN: She's getting poor marks on another issue: her management style. John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, says only a small percent of diplomats think she's fighting for them. And the recent uproar over job postings in Iraq highlighted this.
Mr. JOHN NALAND (President, American Foreign Service Association): The Foreign Service has stepped up to the plate to staff Iraq, and the view is that our senior leadership has not stepped up to the plate to get the Foreign Service the resources we need.
KELEMEN: Naland is hoping that Rice ends her term where Powell started, trying to build up a Foreign Service in need of more staff in training for the growing number of tough assignments around the globe.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.