Washington On these urgent issues Condoleezza Rice will find consensus with America's European partners on her first trip abroad as President Bush's chief diplomat:
There is suddenly an opportunity for her to engage in and catalyze Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Her willingness to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas should reduce U.S.-European tensions, as will Iraq's successful elections. Iran, however, is becoming the source of important new strains within the Atlantic alliance.
These understandings will be starting points -- at most, atmosphere changers -- and not end results. Rice's current weeklong visit to Europe and the Middle East and Bush's European trip later this month are quests for a second-term foreign policy strategy that still has to be elaborated.
Rice's most important task as Colin Powell's successor will be to consolidate and channel the shock waves of change that the Bush team sent through the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe by going on the offensive after Sept. 11, 2001. She must convince a world frequently dismayed by U.S. actions that she can implement and manage the consequences of the grand visions that Bush relentlessly conjures.
Improving relations with Europe by engaging in the Middle East has become by design as well as circumstance Rice's first test. She steps into a minefield that exploded around an unprepared Powell in his first days in office and from which he never escaped. That lesson seems not to have been lost on Rice.
Her quiet consultations with European diplomats on possible agenda-setting trips by her and Bush began soon after the U.S. election. More recently the president's telephone conversations and meetings with foreign leaders have suggested that the Middle East could possibly bring Europeans and Americans closer together after provoking sharp divisions among them for three years.
Bush has not had a sudden conversion on the Middle East -- or on Europe for that matter. Instead, in the view of one leader who talked with him, Bush has come to accept, however reluctantly, that virtually all his major second-term foreign policy goals will be directly influenced by how he handles the opportunity that Yasser Arafat's death and Ariel Sharon's determination to withdraw from Gaza have created for U.S. diplomacy now.
Rice plans to meet with the Israeli prime minister early next week and then, if calm prevails, travel to Ramallah to end the Bush boycott of Palestinian leaders by seeing Abbas. Her contacts would visibly set the stage for the Sharon-Abbas meeting that has been scheduled for Feb. 8.
Her most important talks will be with Sharon, not with the Europeans or with Abbas. While there is some evidence the White House has come to see a peace agreement between Israel and a Palestinian state as a strategic goal for the second Bush term, Sharon has yet to endorse that expansive view.
He still insists that the Palestinians must end all terror attacks and achieve accountable, democratic government before final status negotiations can begin. Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan, the continuing construction of a security fence around the West Bank and his other tactical moves to create change short of a final settlement are as far ahead as he wants to look.
Rice will need to bridge these two strategic gaps, first with the Europeans, who want the United States to lean on Sharon for concessions that lead to a quick final settlement, and then with Israelis who are already nervous that she and Bush will go too far in buying trans-Atlantic harmony.
She should use the trip to begin to turn the tactical into the strategic: Sharon should be supported and if necessary be prodded by Bush to disengage from Gaza and remove four West Bank settlements as promised by the end of the year or earlier. Sharon's Gaza plan gives Bush and Rice a valuable opening toward the two-state solution they have outlined.
And she should bring the Europeans, the World Bank and other funding institutions to greater acceptance of Israel's security fence, which will become a durable part of the two-state solution.
This means that U.S. pressure should be exerted on where the fence goes -- it should roughly parallel the Green Line of 1967 and bring removal of isolated Israeli settlements to its east -- and on making the fence a tolerable security device rather than a cruel instrument of control. That could give Sharon the security he demands of the two-state approach.
There is usually less to these diplomatic forays than meets the eye. This February Rice and Bush go on tour with a chance to change that, and much else besides.
-- Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.