||WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 â€” 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 administrationâ€™s current line.
One described the potential for Iraq to become a â€œcatastrophic failure.â€ 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 â€œwar on terrorâ€ because it alienated many Muslims â€” 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. Bushâ€™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. Riceâ€™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. Zelikowâ€™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 Americaâ€™s allies have applauded them. Mr. Zelikowâ€™s assessments of the Iraq war, first disclosed in Bob Woodwardâ€™s book â€œState of Denial,â€ 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.
Friends of both officials say that Ms. Rice appears to regard Mr. Zelikow as a kind of intellectual anchor during what has been a turbulent period for American foreign policy, in Iraq and beyond.
â€œHeâ€™s a very important intellectual resource, even if she may not always agree with him,â€ said Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser, who has been a mentor to both.
Michael A. McFaul, a political science professor at Stanford University who knows both the secretary of state and Mr. Zelikow, said that â€œthe limited resultsâ€ of the administrationâ€™s approach had â€œcreated space for guys likeâ€ Mr. Zelikow.
Mr. Zelikow is hardly a household name, even at the State Department, where his title is counselor to the secretary of state. He has few staffers, no line authority, and occupies an office at the very end of the hall on the seventh floor, where Ms. Rice and other top officials also have their offices. He is a sometimes-geeky intellectual known for fingernails that are bitten down to nubs.
But questions about his role were sharpened last month after Mr. Zelikow gave a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in which he offered what many believed was an oblique criticism of the decision by Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice not to push Israel to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. He also said progress in that conflict was essential to forming a consensus among the United States, moderate Arabs and Europeans on Iran.
The address may have been an example of what Mr. Zelikow, in two speeches last year, called â€œpractical idealism.â€ But it did not go over well. The State Department quickly distanced itself from the speech, issuing a statement denying any linkage, and Israeli officials, flustered by Mr. Zelikowâ€™s remarks, said Ms. Rice later assured the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, that the United States saw the Iranian and Palestinian issues as two separate matters.
Neither Ms. Rice nor Mr. Zelikow would comment for this article.
But friends of both Ms. Rice and Mr. Zelikow say her initial decision to appoint Mr. Zelikow to the counselor post last year reflects her openness to views at odds with the more ideological approach that has been dominant under President Bush.
Ms. Rice had to expend a substantial amount of her own political capital to get the White House to support her choice, friends say, given Mr. Zelikowâ€™s previous job as staff director of the 9/11 Commission, where he played a major role in writing the report that took both the Clinton and Bush administrations to task for failing to act with sufficient seriousness against the threat from Al Qaeda.
But Ms. Rice arrived at the State Department insistent that she would surround herself with her own people, friends say. Vice President Dick Cheney wanted her to appoint his former deputy national security adviser, Eric S. Edelman, as her political director; she balked and instead chose R. Nicholas Burns, a friend who had worked for her at the security council during the administration of the first President Bush. Likewise, in choosing Mr. Zelikow as her counselor, she eschewed Elliott L. Abrams, a darling of neoconservatives and the pro-Israel lobby.
Mr. Zelikow and Ms. Rice co-authored a book about Germanyâ€™s reunification, â€œGermany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraftâ€ (Harvard University Press, 1995). It is not exactly light reading, but at its core it is a study in realpolitik, examining â€” and admiring â€” the tempered, carefully managed American response to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is a book that Mr. Zelikow could write again today, but one that Ms. Rice could not, friends and associates of both say. Ms. Rice herself has said that she went through something of a transformation after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in which she moved away from the classical realism of her own roots and Mr. Zelikowâ€™s, and closer to the neoconservatives who dominated policy discussions in the first term. Ms. Rice has told friends that President Bush has had a major impact on her thinking in terms of reintroducing values-based politics and ideology.
An example of the distance between Mr. Zelikow and his boss emerged this summer, at the start of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict. The position adopted by Ms. Rice â€” that Israel be permitted to continue its bombardment of Hezbollah despite the mounting civilian death toll in Lebanon â€” satisfied conservatives in the administration, including Mr. Cheney, who were pushing for strong American support of Israel.
That support also included the decision by the administration to heed Israelâ€™s desire that America not push it to resolve the Palestinian conflict until the Palestinian Authority improved security and cracked down on attacks by groups considered to be terrorist entities by Israel and the United States.
But in his speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Mr. Zelikow implicitly acknowledged that that stance does not win America any friends in the Muslim world, and thwarts other American foreign policy objectives.
Joseph Nye, the former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and one of Mr. Zelikowâ€™s friends, said, â€œIf you look at the distance where the administration went away from the realism of the 2000 campaign, Philip never went on that kind of excursion.â€
Mr. Zelikow sat out the first Bush term, running the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. But Ms. Rice turned to him for key tasks, and he drafted much of the 2002 â€œNational Security Strategy of the United States,â€ the document that fundamentally reordered American national security doctrine after the Sept. 11 attacks.
He became the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, from where he pressured Ms. Rice to turn over highly classified intelligence estimates and testify in front of the commission. Officials who worked with him marveled at his industry and precision, but described him as far more opinionated than his gather-the-numbers approach might first suggest. Staffers on the commission said other colleagues were assigned the task of smoothing over the bruised egos of those who had crossed Mr. Zelikow.
The position of counselor to the secretary of state, a post that over the years has been filled by some of Washingtonâ€™s brightest diplomatic lights, allows Mr. Zelikow to fly under the radar, and Ms. Rice has used that flexibility from the beginning of her term, when he was sent off to Iraq to provide an outsiderâ€™s assessment of what had gone wrong.