Philip Zelikow: Featured in front-page NYT profile

Historians in the News

For the last 18 months, Philip D. Zelikow has churned out confidential memorandums and proposals for his boss and close friend, Condoleezza Rice, that often depart sharply from the Bush administration’s current line.

One described the potential for Iraq to become a “catastrophic failure.” Another, among several that have come to light in recent weeks, was an early call for changes in a detention policy that many in the State Department believed was doing tremendous harm to the United States.

Others have proposed new diplomatic initiatives toward North Korea and the Middle East, and one went as far as to call for a reconsideration of the phrase “war on terror” because it alienated many Muslims — an idea that quickly fizzled after opposition from the White House.

Such ideas would have found a more natural home under President George H. W. Bush, for whom Mr. Zelikow and Ms. Rice worked on the staff of the National Security Council. They reflect a sense that American influence is perishable, and can be damaged by overreaching, as allies and other partners react against decisions made in Washington. They form a kind of foreign policy realism that was eclipsed in Mr. Bush’s first term, in favor of a more ideological, unilateral ethos, but that has made something of a comeback in his second term.

Whether Mr. Zelikow, 52, is giving voice to Ms. Rice’s private views, or simply serving as an in-house contrarian, remains unclear. Some of his ideas have become policy: he had called for the closure of secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency a year before the Supreme Court decision that prodded the Bush administration to empty them.

The United States offered North Korea a chance to negotiate a permanent peace treaty, per Mr. Zelikow’s advice, and he, along with Ms. Rice, was one of the backers of the Iran initiative, in which President Bush offered to reverse three decades of American policy against direct talks with Tehran if Iran suspended its uranium enrichment.

Neither North Korea nor Iran has bitten on the initiatives, but America’s allies have applauded them. Mr. Zelikow’s assessments of the Iraq war, first disclosed in Bob Woodward’s book “State of Denial,” were presented to Ms. Rice in 2005.

Ms. Rice keeps Mr. Zelikow close at hand, and the fact that his memorandums have surfaced in recent books and news articles suggests, at a minimum, that he and his allies are aggressively lobbying for his ideas. Mr. Zelikow (pronounced ZELL-i-ko) is being talked about inside the State Department as an outside shot for the vacant job of deputy secretary of state, but some believe that his management style is too combative for the job....
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