U.S. Must Play Role In World, Rice Says

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, addressing 12,000 evangelicals who represent the core of the Bush administration's political base, yesterday sought to counter the stirrings of isolationism in the nation, declaring that the "United States must remain engaged as a leader in events beyond our borders."

"Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the choice before our country, before us as Americans," Rice told the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, N.C. "Will we lead in the world or will we withdraw? Will we rise to the challenges of our time or will we shrink from them?"

President Bush first raised concerns about isolationism in his State of the Union address this year. Since then, the outrage over the potential sale of U.S. port operations to a Dubai-based company and the drive to build a wall along the border with Mexico have added to the worries of administration officials. They fear that it could result in demands even from the president's strongest traditional supporters to pull out troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The venue for Rice's speech -- a religious group meeting in a huge convention hall -- was unusual for a secretary of state. Generally, on domestic trips, the chief diplomat speaks to foreign policy associations or universities. Rice's speech included highly personal references to her faith and religious upbringing, and the crowd broke into a spontaneous singing of "God Bless America" after she spoke.

Rice, a Presbyterian who said she prays every day, noted that she "was born on a Sunday morning" and that for the first three years of her life her family "literally lived in the back of the church in two little rooms where my father preached" and which her grandfather had founded. Her speech was interrupted repeatedly by applause, including seven standing ovations.

Rice did not specifically refer to "isolationism," but her inference was clear as she tried to link Southern Baptist work overseas "digging wells and building dams and strengthening communities" with the administration's goal of promoting democracy overseas. She said the nation could not ignore tyranny and persecution overseas or else it will come back to haunt Americans.

"These are tragedies, but they are also threats in the making," Rice said. "For in today's world, we have learned that whenever freedom and tolerance are on the march, we are secure. But when those ideals are in retreat, we are vulnerable."

Appealing to the evangelicals, Rice asked rhetorically: "If not for America," would issues such as religious liberty, human trafficking, HIV/AIDS prevention and violence in Sudan even be addressed?

Evangelical groups have played a major role in shaping the administration's agenda in many of these issues, such as promoting the "ABC" approach to AIDS prevention, which stands for "Abstain from sex; Be faithful; as a last resort, use a Condom." The administration has targeted prostitution as a key factor in the trade in human beings, and it has launched a diplomatic effort to resolve the conflict in Sudan in part because of Christians living in the south of that country.

Rice said that Bush has made religious liberty a key factor in whether the United States has good relations with another country. "We're mindful that too many people of faith can only whisper to God in the silent sanctuaries of their conscience," she said, citing China as an example of where "you cannot help but marvel at their faith and courage."

Addressing Iraq, Rice conceded the difficulties the administration has faced in prosecuting the war there, but she said "the goal of democracy in Iraq is worth the cost and worth the sacrifice."

"The mission has been extremely difficult," Rice said. "I know it's been far more difficult than many of us imagined it would be. And I realize how hard it can be to remain hopeful when we hear of death squads and beheadings and sectarian strife."

In an interview with the Greensboro News & Record before her speech, Rice ducked a question about her views on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage -- which Southern Baptists strongly support -- but urged that the debate be respectful.

"When we get into difficult debates about social policy, we get into difficult debates that touch people's lives, the only thing that I ask is that Americans do it with a kind of sensitivity that real individuals and real human beings are involved here," Rice said.

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