AS THE torch passed yesterday at the pinnacle of US diplomacy, Condoleezza Rice the incoming Secretary of State, identified a new category of miscreant states - half a dozen "outposts of tyranny" that may replace President George Bush's "axis of evil" in the international political lexicon.
The six countries where Ms Rice said the US had a duty to help foster freedom are Cuba, Zimbabwe, Burma and Belarus, as well as Iran and North Korea, the two surviving founder members of the original "axis of evil". Ms Rice offered her new definition as a Congressional panel voted to confirm her as Secretary of State to replace Colin Powell.
Quite what practical action the US intends against the sextet is unclear. But the gesture signals Ms Rice's commitment to the over- arching foreign policy goal proclaimed by Mr Bush, of extending liberty and democracy around the world.
After a day and a half of sometimes stern questioning, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave Ms Rice its backing by 16 votes to two. The dissenters were two Democrats, the former presidential candidate John Kerry and Barbara Boxer of California, who once again accused the former national security adviser of misleading the country on the war in Iraq.
Ms Rice is expected to be formally approved by the full Senate this morning, shortly before President Bush takes the oath of office.
Cool and unyielding, she served notice yesterday that she was first and foremost the President's servant, intent on minimising the differences with the White House that often emerged when General Powell was almost the sole moderate in Mr Bush's national security team.
"I want to be clearly understood - we are one administration, with the President in the lead," she told Democrats on the committee, many of them visibly irritated by her reluctance to admit that mistakes had been made in the handling of Iraq. Finally 50- year-old Ms Rice did acknowledge that "some bad decisions" had been made over Iraq. But she adamantly denied that she or anyone else in the administration had misled the public.
Accused by Ms Boxer of "rigidness", Ms Rice insisted that she had always told the President her honest opinions: "Sometimes he agrees and sometimes he doesn't." Nonetheless she is widely regarded as one of the less impressive recent national security advisers, often elbowed aside by Dick Cheney, the vice-President, and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Despite her overwhelming approval, Committee Republicans as well as Democrats showed unease. Joe Biden, the senior Democrat, said he was voting for her confirmation "with some frustration and reserve", accusing Ms Rice of stonewalling and "sticking to the party line". On the Republican side, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a noted party moderate, urged Ms Rice to explore reconciliation with Iran, in the administration's sights for its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. But she gave that notion short shrift.
Government type: Parliamentary democracy
Human rights record: Amnesty International says: "The record of arbitrary arrests, unfair imprisonment, torture and impunity speaks for itself."
With Zimbabwe's sixth parliamentary elections only weeks away, President Robert Mugabe has brought in further repressive laws.
A new law threatens journalists with mandatory 20-year prison sentences for publishing anything that "endangers state security" or insults the President. Existing media laws have already been used to ban three private newspapers, arrest at least 48 journalists and expel all foreign correspondents.
Under the Public Order and Security Act, police permission has to be granted for any political gathering involving more than five people.
Foreign funding of local non-governmental organisations has been banned, and foreign NGOs, many of which have been providing famine relief, are also banned from the country. …