WASHINGTON – Asked to list Condoleezza Rice's (search) main challenges as President Bush's secretary of state, career diplomat James Dobbins has a succinct answer: "Iraq, Iraq and Iraq."
There is a long list of other things Rice wants or needs to do as America's top diplomat, including revitalizing peace negotiations between Israel (search) and the Palestinians (search), dampening North Korea's (search) nuclear ambitions and tending the needs of U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere. At least in the short term, however, the messy postwar Iraq (search) situation will complicate American efforts abroad.
At home, questions about Iraq are expected to dominate Rice's Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.
Rice is expected to use the session to describe her goals of limited political and economic reforms across the broader Middle East, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and international efforts to combat HIV and AIDS (search).
Democrats and a few Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, plan to ask her about her role in advising Bush ahead of the invasion and in explaining and selling the policy at large.
California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer plans to tell Rice that as Bush's national security adviser, she overstated the threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, with deadly results for U.S. troops.
"As you made your case, I personally believe that your loyalty to the mission you were given overwhelmed your respect for the truth," Boxer said in remarks prepared for delivery at the hearing.
Despite such tough talk, experts such as Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state, predict no major fireworks at Rice's hearing and no late-breaking revelations that could derail her nomination. A checkered past sank Bernard Kerik (search) as Bush's first choice to lead the Homeland Security Department, and several of former President Clinton's nominees were similarly embarrassed.
Rice has been through difficult questioning before.
She kept her cool under intense questioning last year from Democrats on the Sept. 11 commission, and she is a regular on Sunday morning public affairs television shows.
Kenneth Lieberthal, a foreign policy adviser to former President Clinton, said the Senate session probably won't yield much sense of Rice's views or ambitions beyond the White House line.
"Condi Rice has been very careful to protect the secrecy of her personal contacts with President Bush -- and she obviously has spent a great deal of time talking to him -- but almost nothing is known as to the personal views she expressed," Lieberthal said.
Rice's hearing will extend to a second day if need be, followed immediately by a committee vote. The full Senate could vote as early as Thursday afternoon, after Bush takes the oath of office for his second term.
"The office will be ready for her" on that day, current Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an interview last week with CNN's Larry King Live.
Rice's four-year tenure as Bush's national security adviser and general foreign policy guru means she will be ready for the office, too, or at least the part of it that deals with the Bush administration's foreign affairs.
Rice has little experience with the nuts and bolts of the State Department's vast bureaucracy, and she got middling reviews for her management skills at the National Security Council (search).
She has been arriving at her temporary office at the State Department each day at 6:45 a.m. to study up. Her designated replacement as national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, has been giving Bush his morning foreign policy briefings in Rice's absence.
Rice gets daily briefings on the mechanics of State Department operations and has met with career foreign service officers and civil servants. She has been shaking hands in the hallways of the sprawling building but keeps a low profile. She enters and exits through the underground garage and has given no interviews about her preparations for the job.
Personable, affable and bright, Rice still will have some work to do to charm a diplomatic rank and file who saw Powell as their champion, said Brent Scowcroft (search), a former national security adviser to Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush.
Rice can benefit by another comparison with Powell, Scowcroft said. Where Powell was often perceived as a step removed from Bush's inner circle, Rice's well-known friendship with the president will be an asset when she talks with foreign leaders, Scowcroft said.
"They'll think they are talking to the president."