Deputy Secretary of State Zoellick Resigning

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006; 10:06 AM

Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, one of the administration's most prominent figures in foreign and economic policy, is resigning to join the Wall Street investment firm of Goldman Sachs.

Zoellick's interest in leaving his high-profile post had been long rumored but it leaves a large hole in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's foreign policy team. Zoellick spearheaded efforts to end the violence in Sudan's Darfur region and was the administration's main interlocutor in the delicate relationship between the United States and China.

In a ceremony in the Benjamin Franklin room of the State Department, Rice said she was "deeply honored" that Zoellick had agreed to be her deputy and was making the announcement with "considerable sadness."

In a one-hour interview Friday, Zoellick said he was leaving 16 months after he started because he had accomplished his objective of helping Rice set up her management team and get her tenure as Secretary of State off to a fast start.

"The Secretary is clearly up and running quite well," Zoellick said. "We now have a very good team, a team considered -- false modesty here -- one of the best, if not the best, cabinet teams around."

Zoellick said he approached Rice early this year and told her that he was ready to move on. He had planned to stay until after Chinese president Hu Jintao visited Washington in April but then his departure was delayed because he became involved in rescuing faltering Darfur peace talks being held in Nigeria.

Zoellick also felt that with Rice's key initiatives launched -- and Rice now such a high profile figure around the globe -- that he would be left with increasingly lower-priority issues. Some State Department officials believe Zoellick was surprised at how rapidly Rice became global celebrity.

"We are at a point where with the major initiatives, they really have got to be driven by the Secretary, in terms of the conduct of it. It's the way foreign policy works," Zoellick said. "The nature of the deputy job is you get a smorgasbord of what I'll call the second and third and fourth order issues."

Zoellick handled less of the day-to-day management of State than his predecessor, Richard L. Armitage, and instead was given a meaty portfolio of foreign policy issues to handle, which besides China and Sudan also included Latin America, Southeast Asia and economic and political reform in the Middle East.

Even the two issues for which he is best known -- Sudan and China -- have reached a certain plateau, Zoellick said. With the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement by at least one rebel group, the focus will be in the implementation of the agreement, he said. On China, Zoellick held a series of high-level talks with Chinese officials and in a major speech last year reframed U.S. policy and put forth the idea that the United States wanted China to be a "responsible stakeholder" in the world. But he said "this is not activity that will be solved in one year or two years."

During Bush's first term, Zoellick had been U.S. trade representative, a Cabinet position. After the president's reelection, Zoellick had appeared on track to be selected as Bush's nominee as World Bank president when Rice unexpectedly approached him about the deputy secretary's job. (Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz instead got the World Bank post.) Zoellick took the sub-Cabinet post with some misgivings, and there was little expectation he would stay a full four years. He recently has been mentioned for other cabinet posts such as Energy Secretary or Treasury Secretary. Bush this month nominated Goldman Sachs chief Hank Paulson as his new Treasury Secretary.

Zoellick said he is helping Paulson, an old friend, with the transition to Treasury, including help on hiring a staff.

Zoellick had a long association with Rice. He -- along with two other top Rice aides, Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns and Counselor Philip Zelikow -- worked closely with Rice on the reunification of Germany during the administration of George H. W. Bush. Zoellick at the time was a top aide to Secretary of State James A. Baker III while Rice, Burns and Zelikow worked on the National Security Council staff.

As trade representative, Zoellick had forged close connections in Congress and with economic officials around the world, filling in a gap in Rice's background. He also brought State Department experience from his period with Baker, who Rice viewed as one of her models for running the department, though Zoellick is no fan of the State Department bureaucracy.

Zoellick said he and Rice had a "very comfortable relationship" and he provided counsel on a range of matters. "I can almost read sometimes where she is a little uncomfortable on something so I can make a push," he said.

A wide search for a new deputy is being run by Rice chief of staff Brian Gunderson and senior advisor Jim Wilkinson. Two names frequently mentioned as Zoellick's replacement, Burns and Treasury Deputy Secretary Robert M. Kimmitt, appear increasingly unlikely to make the final cut. Burns is a career foreign service officer, not a political appointee, while Kimmitt may have been politically damaged for his involvement in the decision to approve the controversial sale of U.S. port operation to a Dubai-based company.