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Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company  
The New York Times

December 23, 2001, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 1A; Page 1; Column 6; Foreign Desk

LENGTH: 1679 words

Wartime Forges A United Front For Bush Aides



A hundred days of crisis and war have not only transformed George W. Bush's presidency and the nation he leads, but have forced a greater level of unity on his circle of national security advisers, even as significant differences persist in their priorities for the long-term struggle against terrorism and the conflicts that give rise to it.

Before Sept. 11, as the advisers struggled to define America's mission to a world suspicious of Mr. Bush's intentions, their conflicts on international treaties, the environment, North Korea and dealings with the world's other superpowers unnerved Europe and Asia. Things are different now.

In the weeks leading up to Sept. 11 there were whispers in Washington that Colin L. Powell had become the invisible secretary of state. Now he is regarded as the consummate pragmatist, whose long experience in the Army and as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has brought realism to American diplomacy in a time of war.

Donald H. Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, who had been parodied as a latter-day Dr. Strangelove for his hawkish, America-first views, has emerged as the dominant spokesman for the war effort. His Pentagon news briefings have become must-viewing in Washington and around the nation, as he delivers news of the war in the manner of a long-tenured professor, replete with critiques of the logic or syntax of the assembled reporters. His wire-rimmed glasses and slicked hair are reminiscent of Robert S. McNamara, the Vietnam-era defense secretary who came to dominate the military establishment by dint of his willpower and intellect.

And the critical third player, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, once criticized for stoking the president's go-it-alone instincts, and suspected of focusing too little attention on the Arab-Israeli dispute, has emerged as the decisive vote in councils of war.

The 48-year old former Stanford professor, a Russia expert, is the member of the team most likely to anticipate Mr. Bush's response to a problem.

Increasingly comfortable as his spokeswoman, she is appearing more often in public, where her verbal precision is a sharp counterpoint to Mr. Bush's own tendency to speak in vague and sometimes confusing colloquialisms.

There is no question that the three advisers still differ. But they have managed to keep news of their differences to a minimum, and when they break into the open they have made a more convincing case that they are marshaling a diversity of views for President Bush to consider. Once seen as stark competitors, they have been recast by events as loyal aides to a wartime leader.

"The venom is gone," a senior official who witnesses many of their deliberations said this week. "They have learned to disagree better."

Their new sense of unity, however tentative, may well be tested in coming weeks. The next phase of the war is approaching when tensions between India and Pakistan, and between Israel and the Palestinians, are higher than at any time in years. All three conflicts will inevitably lead to debates over how deeply America should intervene in long-standing disputes, and perhaps over what kind of missions America's military should be taking on.

Meanwhile, old arguments still simmer. Secretary Powell clearly wants a greater eventual role for Russia in NATO than does Secretary Rumsfeld, who is trying to limit Russia's influence. The jousting continues on the wisdom, timing and method of trying to depose President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. And the president's decision to pull out of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty still rankles that part of the administration that wanted to take more time exploring alternatives to withdrawal with Russia.

If those differences seem less urgent now, says Michael McFaul, a political scientist and specialist on Russia at Stanford University, where he was a colleague of Ms. Rice, perhaps it is because great events transform public perceptions.

"In peacetime, these conflicts get presented as personal agendas, but in wartime, these are debates over the national interest," Mr. McFaul observed. "They are the same debates, but we look at them through a different prism," as a frank exchange of views by people trying to give a president a full range of options.

Some administration officials assert that stories about policy clashes between hard-liners and pragmatists in the administration were mostly imagined by the news media, seeking a story in a White House known for its discipline and secrecy.

"I don't believe that the caricature was right before" Sept. 11, Ms. Rice said recently in her office, where calls from Secretary Powell and Secretary Rumsfeld arrive on a dedicated phone with a distinctive, old-fashioned bell-ringer. "And the caricature afterward is not right," she added.

She conceded that the team works together more closely now because of the necessities of the war, which has led to three-times-a-week meetings of the National Security Council, which Mr. Bush attends, and Tuesday and Thursday meetings of Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld, and other "principals."

But she said "it's not a formal debating society," where Secretary Rumsfeld lays out the institutional position of the Pentagon, and Secretary Powell stands up for the State Department. "These sessions are problem-solving," she said, "so an issue will come on the table and some who were advocating one way at the beginning might be advocating the opposite at the end."

Still, well-known ideological fault lines exist in the administration. Mr. Bush has endeared himself to conservatives like Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary.

Behind the scenes, Vice President Dick Cheney plays a critical but almost invisible role, combining his conservatism with the pragmatic requirements of domestic politics and foreign relations. He pressed hard to abandon the ABM treaty, for example, and he has been active in the delicate diplomacy of dealing with Pakistan -- an ally in the war in Afghanistan, but a country reluctant to crack down on terrorist groups favoring independence for Kashmir.

"Our feeling was that when Bush came in, there were a lot of misgivings in the world about him and his team," said an administration official who has worked closely with all three top figures advising Mr. Bush. Abroad, the words "cowboy" and "Texas" were used to parody the Bush swagger in world affairs. Misgivings deepened after Mr. Bush clashed with China over a downed American spy plane, with Russia over whether America would even take it seriously and with Europe over how Mr. Bush would handle Russia's opposition to the abandonment of the ABM treaty.

Mr. Bush was working on changing that image with swings through Europe in June and a speech in Warsaw that seemed to plant him more firmly in the Bush family shoes of pragmatism and cooperation abroad.

"The perceptions have changed," the administration official said. "After Sept. 11, you have a president basing a lot of what he is doing on international cooperation and expansion of freedom," and therefore the "perception of his leadership." In light of that, the role of his senior advisers "is starker in a very positive way."

One example of the change was evident earlier this month, when Mr. Bush formally announced his decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty, an act that may mark one of the most important decisions of his first year in office.

Had he made the same announcement in July, some of his aides concede, there would have been an uproar in Europe, and denunciations from Russia. But since he first met Mr. Putin in the summer in Slovenia, he has nurtured relations with the Russian leader. And by the time he pulled the plug on the treaty, the president and Secretary Powell had prepared the ground -- embracing Mr. Putin on everything from admission into the World Trade Organization to cooperation on antiterrorism -- that the reaction was muted.

Mr. Rumsfeld and Ms. Rice had been the strongest voices in favor of a quick exit from the ABM treaty, with Ms. Rice, a scholar with expertise on the Russian military, playing a pivotal role. Mr. Powell had been inclined to look for other alternatives, but in the end aligned himself with Mr. Rumsfeld and Ms. Rice.

Ms. Rice, who had served as the chief foreign policy adviser to Mr. Bush during his presidential campaign, was seen as an architect of some of his campaign positions, especially his aversion to what he called "nation building." Such views have been significantly amended since Sept. 11, as the need for nation building in Afghanistan has become more evident.

"Bush himself did not have a philosophy about foreign policy" and, therefore, some of the positions of the campaign were "easy to abandon," Mr. McFaul said. The same is true with Ms. Rice, he argued. "To me what is really striking is how she, too, has had to change and I think two things about that: one, she is not an ideologue and, two, she responds to what the boss wants."

Ms. Rice has also emerged as an enormous influence on Mr. Bush. She is with him frequently, and is often the only senior adviser with him on the weekends at Camp David. "She started as a filter for competing views," one official who deals with her daily said recently. "Now, she actively shapes the decisions."

It would not be the first time such a transformation has taken place.

In the Nixon administration, Henry A. Kissinger's image as an insecure and overly competitive adviser to the president was transformed by the opening to China. Perhaps as a result, Mr. Kissinger is fond of quoting Otto von Bismarck, the 19th-century Prussian strategist, that statesmen do not make history, rather it is the other way around.

"The best a statesman can do is to listen to the footsteps of God, get a hold of the hem of his cloak and walk with him a few steps of the way," Bismarck once observed.

When Mr. Bush and his team entered office, no one predicted that the footsteps of history would take them into a war against terrorism that has no end in sight.

GRAPHIC: Photo: President Bush's foreign policy team: Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. (Reuters)(pg. B4)

LOAD-DATE: December 23, 2001