Political punch in a package of charm

Condoleezza Rice has rarely heard a question she doesn’t know how to answer, from queries about her tumultuous childhood in segregated Alabama to her success in the male world of superpower politics, nuclear weapons and arms control.

She meets me with the friendly smile and easy hospitality of a west-coaster, defying the image of someone anointed by Washington insiders to become the most powerful woman in the world in a year. The chief foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, Rice is being tipped as a likely secretary of state or national security adviser should Bush win the White House.

As huge a task as this sounds, Rice’s own life story has the word “amazing” written all over it. At 45, she has been the first black woman in just about any job she’s taken on: from special assistant for national security affairs to President George Bush when she was only 34, to provost of California’s prestigious Stanford University (the Harvard of the west coast) where she managed a budget of nearly $2bn…

The new statesman

Vojislav Kostunica is still trying to recover from the “shock” he felt nearly four months ago when he finally realised that he was indeed the president of Yugoslavia. He was “thrilled and humbled”, he says, and had thought much about how he would “behave as president-elect” after his September 24 victory over Slobodan Milosevic, who disputed the results of the vote until he was forced out of power on October 6.

But since then, “things have been changing very quickly” for the soft-spoken and studious 56-year-old lawyer, who readily acknowledges his “lack of experience” in governing, and finds his new duties and unlikely celebrity rather overwhelming.

“This job is very difficult, but also very creative,” he says, “and I wouldn’t be in politics if the creativity were missing”. Although he remains entirely serious, it seems that he is wittily hinting at the total mess which he inherited in his country’s affairs — both domestic and foreign — from his predecessor and which necessarily will require quite a bit of “creativity” to overcome…

So busy at diplomacy, he ‘ignored’ the US election

Richard Holbrooke is about to make yet another exit from the US foreign policy stage — the fourth in his 38-year career. Many of the people who know him well, though, are already predicting a stormy comeback.

This is the second time he has come within a whisker of the job that many in Washington say he’s been pursuing for years: secretary of state. In 1996, a year after he brokered the Dayton agreements that ended the war in Bosnia, he lost out to Madeleine Albright — the first woman to hold the top diplomatic post.

This time it was the slimmest of election wins by Republican George W. Bush that decided Holbrooke’s fate. Although the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, was careful during the campaign not to reveal his potential cabinet choices, foreign policy insiders were betting that Holbrooke, at present US ambassador to the United Nations, would most likely have been his choice to succeed Albright…

Fighting talk from a reluctant civilian

General Wesley Clark led NATO’s forces to victory in the alliance’s first combat in history — the 1999 air campaign against Serbia over Kosovo — but back home in the US he was treated like a defeated warrior and dismissed from his post of supreme allied commander in Europe.

He paid a price for bitterly clashing with the Pentagon over its unwillingness to consider sending ground troops against Serb forces. But, more significantly, Clark had opposed the entire post-cold war philosophy of the US military, which was reluctant to get involved in foreign conflicts and, if it did, it took a long-distance, low-risk approach.

Indeed, the Kosovo war was conducted from altitudes of 15,000ft and without the loss of a single NATO soldier. While Clark was proud of the victory, he saw and publicly exposed a huge gap between the pretended “combat readiness” of the most powerful military in the world and its refusal to accept the realities of war…

You can’t hurry love

She lives in Notting Hill, he in Washington’s slightly bohemian equivalent, Adams Morgan. Their 14-month marriage has been a whirlwind of weekend rendezvous and transatlantic phone calls. The world sees them on television, sometimes even sharing a split screen, more frequently than they see each other in person.

But the prospect of their first child — due in early April — has already started to change the way they live. They have spent more time together over the past few months and, though the decision where the baby will be born is yet to be taken, they both realise that compromises will be inevitable.

For CNN’s chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, and State Department spokesman James Rubin, the forthcoming member of their family has become a way to show the world that “some of us can have everything” — successful careers and a normal personal life.

Albright’s final bow

Madeleine Albright is almost shouting. She can’t hear me any more, she says. The noise on her aircraft has, indeed, become more deafening; but she also seems to be deliberately avoiding my question, and with good reason. This very moment is probably her happiest as secretary of state because of “the most important thing that has happened” during her nearly four-year tenure.

She has just received news about the Belgrade revolution and the ousting of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, and here I am, asking how she feels about having to leave office in three months. We’ve just spent a 30-hour day, having saved six hours by flying east-west from Egypt to Washington, and she says that’s exactly what she intends to continue doing for the rest of her term — “working every minute and extending the days”…