Condi Rice More Than Sum of Her Parts
NEW YORK – If confirmed by the Senate, Condoleezza Rice (search) will be the first African American woman to serve as secretary of state — a post that calls for her to be America's top diplomat in cultures that may not be very friendly to women or blacks.
But political observers say neither her race nor her sex will have an impact on how effective she is conducting diplomacy abroad.
Madeleine Albright — the first woman to hold the job after being named secretary of state by former President Bill Clinton — may have put it best when she said she didn't feel condescended to by men "because when I arrived somewhere, it was in a large plane with 'United States of America' emblazoned on the side."
Current Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) made history when President Bush nominated him to oversee the State Department. With an esteemed military career behind him, he became the first black man to hold the job.
Ambassador Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state who served with Albright, said the most important factor Rice will have working to her advantage is that she works closely with the president of the United States — and that means more than skin color or race most everywhere.
"The secretary of state is not really seen as a person or individual — they're seen as a representative of the United States and they're treated that way," Walker, president of the Middle East Institute, told FOXNews.com.
"Condoleezza is going to have a great advantage because she is known to have a good relationship with the president … I'm assuming she won't be as blindsided by the White House or the NSC [National Security Council] as Colin Powell was time to time. So it should be a much more effective role in the Middle East, throughout, regardless of where she is."
Powell was often described as being frustrated with his lack of access to Bush and that, in a Cabinet full of hawks regarding the war in Iraq, Powell was cast as the lone dove. Powell also shouldered some of the responsibility when the weapons of mass destruction thought to be in Saddam Hussein's hands were never found. It was Powell who spoke for the president and the United States when he took the reason for war to the United Nations.
So, given the fact that Rice is noticeably closer to the commander-in-chief than Powell is, leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere may think their message will be heard loud and clear.
"The only difference here is that people in that part of the world say 'look, Colin Powell did not have the ear of the president' but now, I think, that particular argument isn't even there," said Fawaz Gerges, an international affairs fellow at Sarah Lawrence College.
Even in the most traditional cultures, Rice isn't expected to have too many problems other than those strictly of the diplomatic type, observers said.
In Saudi Arabia's culture, for example, women are expected to walk around with a male escort.
And in the Sudan (search), a race-based genocide pitting Arabs against black Africans has left over 50,000 of the latter population dead in Darfur alone, and 1.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. The Arab Janjaweed militias have been supported by Sudanese government bombing. A recent State Department report concludes, the "primary cleavage is ethnic: Arabs against Africans."
But experts said that even in regions like these, leaders should not let either race or gender get in the way of diplomatic efforts.
"As far as those foreign governments are concerned, they'd better not even try it," said David Almasi, executive director of Project 21, an initiative of the National Center for Public Policy Research, which serves as a national leadership network of black conservatives. "She is the selection of the president of the United States, the leader of the free world and it doesn't matter who she is, what she is — she is a representative of our nation."
Almasi added: "Regarding religion and culture and things like that, I'm sure that may arise and the government as a whole will do everything possible to accommodate but if it comes down to something that is racist or sexist or something like that, I don't think we'll feel obligated to go along with that."
One female Foreign Service officer at the State Department who worked under Albright and Powell said she served in countries such as Tunisia, Mexico, Lebanon, South Africa and Yugoslavia, the latter during the Cold War, and never felt as if she were treated differently — in a negative way — because of her gender.
"When you're a professional and you're serving abroad … you are respected for the country you represent, regardless of gender or ethnic background," the officer told FOXNews.com. "They're dealing with a representative of one of the most powerful countries in the world — in a word, it's a non-issue."
Gerges agreed with these sentiments and added that challenges Rice will face, however, will be of a different magnitude than either Albright or Powell.
"The biggest challenges facing Condoleezza Rice would be, of course, Iraq and Palestine because now the situation in Iraq is deteriorating … the violence is likely to escalate," Gerges said. Rice will not only have to "help the nominal Iraqi government pacify the situation but also to try to get more international support for the Americans — for the coalition forces in Iraq and this is an uphill battle."
If confirmed, Rice will have the responsibility of garnering more support for the U.S.-led efforts in Iraq, particularly heading into that country's Jan. 30 elections. She also will be the United States' top negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now that former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is dead, the Bush administration hopes more headway can be made in forging peace in the Middle East.
In this area, Middle Eastern leaders, Muslims and Arabs alike, "will be looking forward to seeing how effective and how committed Condoleezza Rice is," Gerges said.
Albright has said that even in the more uncomfortable or unsettling situations — such as being almost the only female in a male-dominated field, the American secretary of state doesn't have the "luxury" of being intimidated.
"I remember very specifically thinking, 'OK, I'm a woman, I must wait — no, I'm the United States. I must speak,'" Albright said on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in January 2001. "I'm not intimidated anymore, because I am the United States."