Will Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cheer the Bush administration's foreign policy record as much in her next job as she did last week?
That question kept pushing others aside as I reviewed Rice's spirited defense of how the Bush team has handled global affairs. She concluded that the world is a safer place today than it was when President Bush took office.
Nice try, but no.
The particular context for my question was an article that appeared recently in Foreign Policy journal (www.foreignpolicy. com).
That piece discussed how Rice supposedly convinced her bosses over the years that she embraced worldviews close to theirs, only to surprise them with her shifting perspectives after leaving their employ.
Although Rice might disagree with that assessment, it is likely that she will reinvent her current public positions - especially if she harbors the political ambitions that I suspect. For now, though, she walks essentially in lock-step with the White House.
My own view is that the world - because of a surging population, expanding contacts, more powerful and accessible weapons, stiffening competition for scarce resources, age-old ethnic and religious differences and fears, and fundamental human shortcomings such as greed, selfishness and delusions of superiority - is and has always been an increasingly dangerous place.
That is not to suggest that people lack opportunities to strive for better understanding, harmony and peace. But such efforts have never been sufficiently widespread and consistent. Although I have not given up on hope and optimism, the prospects - especially during the short term - are grim. Unless, of course, the United States consciously and urgently moves to improve the political climate. It is fully capable of such decisive action.
For instance, when the Cold War reached its zenith with the arrival of superpower nuclear parity, the situation turned as bleak as it ever had been. Then, in a welcome spasm of detente, wisdom and awareness, Washington and Moscow embraced arms control and, eventually, certain weapons reductions.
Unfortunately, a safer era was not the world's fate, for the shrinking East-West divide overlapped with the birth of a new wave of terrorism. Thanks to the Bush administration's aggressive pursuit of terrorists, I do agree with Rice that history will treat it more kindly than current critics have.
In other regards, though, such as the premature rush to war in Iraq, a foreign policy brimming with often-arrogant unilateralism and the designating of multiple countries as "outposts of tyranny" or as belonging to an "axis of evil," the Bush administration has exacerbated global tensions.
The negative repercussions of those policies will not significantly diminish in a year or five or 10. America's next president - whether Democrat or Republican - will bear a major responsibility to repair bridges, build connections and promote multilateralism.
Thus, contrary to Rice's assertion, the world in 2007 is not any nicer than it was in 2001. It is, in fact, as bad in some respects and even worse in others.
Consider that al-Qaida and its affiliates have metamorphosed into a larger, less visible and harder-to-monitor threat. The Taliban are resurgent in Afghanistan. The status of Palestinians remains unresolved. Peace still goes begging between Israel and much of the Middle East. North Korea and Iran are hugely disruptive. Saddam Hussein may be gone, but Iraq is more burdensome than ever. Climate change is disturbingly evident. Human rights abuses are rampant. Most of the world's people have benefited little, if any, from globalization. I could go on.
In sum, virtually every challenge that Bush faced at the beginning of his first term is there today, along with several additions. I hope that Rice is correct in declaring that America stands at the beginning of a historic transformation. If so, it will be mostly shaped not by Bush but by the presidents who follow him.