WASHINGTON — Among Washington insiders, a favorite topic of conversation has become, "Is Condoleezza Rice doing her job?"
What prompts the speculation is the indecorous bureaucratic wrestling match between Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that became embarrassingly public this month over the reconstruction of Iraq. The question inside the Beltway is: Why hasn't Rice stepped in to referee?
"She's the Sphinx," complained one government official who, like most interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity. "I don't know where she is. I don't know what she thinks."
That inscrutability, however, appears to be how Rice and President Bush want it -- even if it bothers many with a more activist view of the national security advisor's role.
In theory, the person in that job is supposed to mediate among the departments of State and Defense and agencies such as the CIA, distilling their positions for the president. Many in Washington see the national security advisor as the main interdepartmental enforcer.
But that isn't necessarily the case. Over the years, the job has been defined differently under different presidents.
The paradigmatic "strong" national security advisor was Henry A. Kissinger, who so dominated President Nixon's foreign policy that eventually he took over the job of secretary of State as well.
He doubled the size of his staff, the National Security Council, and turned it into the engine of the government's foreign policy.
Rice, 48, has hewed closer to the model of her previous boss, Brent Scowcroft, who as President Ford's national security advisor concentrated on providing him with private analysis and let other members of the administration drive policy.
Rice occasionally gets involved in diplomacy, such as when she flew to Moscow in April to begin to repair relations with Russia, or when she used a White House meeting with Israeli Chief of Staff Dov Weisglass this month to convince that nation's leadership to sign on to the Middle East peace plan known as the road map.
But for the most part, Rice operates more as loyal aide to the president than power broker in her own right.
Government officials in other agencies say that because of her low profile, the Department of Defense has been able to move into policy areas that are officially in the purview of State, such as picking civilian administrators for postwar Iraq. And they complain that the Pentagon has at times circumvented coordination by the NSC .
"The president has tolerated the Pentagon bypassing the NSC system," said Robert Hunter, a member of President Carter's NSC and a former ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who is with Rand Corp. in its Washington office. "Many see the system as broken-down."
Insiders say letting the State and Defense departments battle it out is a dangerous long-term strategy. "I don't think [the president] sees the downsides," groused another former NSC official.
It pits middle- and lower-level bureaucracies against each other in a way that can divert attention away from national security. Foreign governments have complained it is sometimes hard to discern the administration's policy because the State Department and the Pentagon seem to pursue different goals.
Rice declined to comment for this article. The national security advisor shouldn't just mediate disputes, she should knock heads together, many say.
"I'd argue that it's Condi's job to sort it out," said a Clinton-era NSC official. "My view is that the national security advisor should adjudicate policy and bring a unified argument to the president. The president shouldn't be wasting his time resolving bureaucratic differences."
But others say that doesn't have to be her job.
"It depends on how a president and his national security advisor want to organize it," said another former NSC official. "It's not necessarily a failure of the national security advisor if the secretary of Defense and the secretary of State are duking it out."
The advisor's role in the current administration may have been further diminished by the fact that Vice President Dick Cheney has a parallel national security staff that weighs in from time to time. But two NSC aides insisted Cheney's staff doesn't improperly interfere.
Others speculate that Rice refrains from intervening between the two powerful department secretaries because she is anxious not to alienate Rumsfeld; the rumor mill suggests that Powell may step down in the event Bush wins a second term, and Rice is said to want the job.
Sean McCormack, the NSC spokesman, said regardless of what the rest of Washington might think, Rice doesn't see herself as an enforcer. Her job is to provide the president with the information he needs to make decisions.
"Our primary function, as Condi has identified it, is to staff the president and coordinate among the agencies," McCormack said.