Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday set out ambitious goals for the Bush administration's push for greater democracy overseas over the next four years, including pressing for competitive presidential elections this year in Egypt and women's right to vote in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.
Rice, in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters, said she was guided less by a fear that Islamic extremists would replace authoritarian governments than by a "strong certainty that the Middle East was not going to stay stable anyway." Extremism, she said, is rooted in the "absence of other channels for political activity," and so "when you know that the status quo is no longer defensible, then you have to be willing to move in another direction."
Rice, who became secretary of state two months ago today, took stock of a period of tumultuous change in the one-hour interview, touching on relations with Russia, China, Israel and Latin America and addressing a range of conflicts across the globe.
Since taking charge of State from her predecessor, Colin L. Powell, Rice has moved quickly to put her stamp on the agency, enlisting a tight-knit group of political operatives who make sure the message and images of her diplomacy are consistent with White House policy. Rice has traveled extensively, impressing diplomats in Europe, Asia and the Middle East with a combination of charm and bluntness -- and a clear sense that her words reflect President Bush's thinking.
After Rice canceled a trip to Egypt recently to protest the continued imprisonment of an opposition leader, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced the nation would hold multi-party elections this year for the first time, though with potentially significant caveats. Rice cautioned yesterday that Egyptian elections "will not look like American competitive presidential elections," but she said the United States believes "competitiveness is an important element of the democratic enterprise."
Asked whether she hopes to see women vote in Saudi Arabia, where they are barred, Rice replied: "In terms of women, I hope they are voting everywhere." She said she recalled a photograph of the recent Saudi municipal elections "that was very striking to me": a man having his daughter put his ballot in the box, which she interpreted as demonstrating his hopes for his daughter.
One of the most difficult challenges for the Bush administration is how to balance the push for democracy with its relations with Russia, which has become increasingly authoritarian under President Vladimir Putin.
With Kyrgyzstan this week becoming the third former Soviet republic to fall to a popular uprising, Rice stressed that "nobody is trying to encircle Russia." She said that "the space around Russia" is changing rapidly and the United States is trying to impress upon the Russians that liberalization and democracy around Russia will lead to greater prosperity within Russia.
"It's very important that Russia not get isolated," she said, adding that Russian cooperation during the Kyrgyzstan revolution has been much better after the tensions over the Ukrainian elections last year. "We don't need a new dividing line on the other side of the Ukraine."
Rice, who visited Beijing this week, said she had been told by the Chinese leadership that they will begin to make amends for the recent passage of a law authorizing the use of force against Taiwan if it moves toward formal independence. She said Chinese leaders understood that the law -- mainly drafted for internal political reasons -- had negative consequences overseas. "They talked a good deal about what they were going to try to do to reduce tensions in the Taiwan Straits," she said. "And we'll see. That would be a good next step."
Rice also said she made the case to Chinese officials that they cannot make a distinction between stability on the Korean Peninsula and North Korea possessing nuclear weapons. In more than two years of talks over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, a major problem for U.S. policy has been that China has been hesitant to press North Korea too hard for fears of sparking instability in the closed communist country on its border.
"My discussion with the Chinese was to suggest to them that those two [concepts] are indivisible," Rice said. "They understand that a nuclear North Korea on the Korean Peninsula has potentially unpredictable effects that will not make the Korean Peninsula very stable, will not make the region very stable. And so I didn't find much pushback on that."
Rice denied reports from Israeli officials -- and some U.S. officials -- that the Bush administration had struck an arrangement with Israel that would allow for some settlement growth in Palestinian areas. Israeli officials had said that the administration would allow for growth within settlements as long as additional housing units did not exceed existing construction lines. The U.S.-backed "road map" plan for peace calls for Israel to freeze settlement growth.
Rice said the "only commitment or assurance" was made last April, when Bush announced that because of "new realities on the ground" -- existing settlements in Palestinian areas -- Israel could expect to retain some settlements as part of a final peace deal. She said that since then the United States has asked Israel for more detail on its settlement activity because "there is so much information, misinformation . . . that the picture was just too confusing."
After the interview, Rice called a reporter twice to expand on her remarks on the administration's settlement policy. The administration has had "discussions about steps toward a settlement freeze," she said in one of the phone calls. "But we've never reached closure on that. It's complicated."
On Latin America, Rice said there needs to be "a new focus in the hemisphere on how democratic governments deliver better for their people." With corruption and growing gaps between the wealthy and poor in terms of education and health care, she said the region is increasing susceptible to what she called "a kind of demagoguery about class differences."
"In the hemisphere there's a gap between economies that are growing and the status of people, and it's leading to fertile ground for populism," Rice said. She added there are "very strong signs" that Venezuela -- headed by a president, Hugo Chavez, who makes clear his disdain for the Bush administration -- is interfering in the affairs of Colombia and other countries.
The secretary defended the administration's decision to sell F-16s to Pakistan, even though it is run by a military leader who ousted an elected government in a bloodless coup. Under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, "Pakistan has come a long way, it's on a better trajectory than it's ever been, or that it's been in many, many years," she said.
Rice said that she was struck by the conclusions of the Sept. 11 commission: "Basically invest in the relationship with Pakistan, because if you don't, you're going to create the same situation we created in the '90s," when Pakistan forged close ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan.