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A New Mideast, or Wishful Thinking?

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By Fred Hiatt
Monday, December 18, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice obviously thinks that former secretary of state James Baker just doesn't get how the Mideast has changed since he last plied the peacemaking shuttle 15 years ago.

That's one thing that becomes clear when you listen to her talk for any length of time, as she did during a visit to The Post last week. Of course she makes it clear in characteristic Rice fashion: polite, correct, not personal -- but also forceful and eloquent and unmistakable.

Start with democracy, a word conspicuously deemphasized by Baker and co-chair Lee Hamilton in their Iraq Study Group report. They want Rice to talk with Iran and with Syria, which is busy undermining democracy in Lebanon. They speak more broadly for the burgeoning Washington consensus that the promotion of democracy in the Middle East was a dangerous pipe dream best abandoned before any more damage is done.

Not so, Rice says. "The United States has always been most effective when it is leading both from power and principle," she said. And: "I don't see how the United States of America can ever back off of that commitment in the search somehow for stability -- which I am quite certain will be a false stability." The false stability, she implies, of accommodating dictators in Syria and Iran.

This is a moment of emerging "clarity" in the region, the secretary says, "one of those critical junctures in international politics . . . because a lot of the old bargains in the Middle East have really collapsed." With the lid lifted, there's a struggle between Shiite and Sunni to redefine their relationship. There's a struggle inside Islam to redefine the roles of politics and religion.

Most of all, Rice says, there is a struggle between extremism and moderation. The United States needs to "act smartly in that new strategic context rather than being drawn back to the old strategic context in search of, I think, a stability that no longer exists. . ." That false stability, again. Which is why, she says, she resists talks on Iraq with Syria's strongman and Iran's mullahs. If they perceive it in their national interest to help stabilize Iraq, they will do so in any event; if not, the price they demand will be exorbitant -- the United States standing aside as Syria regobbles Lebanon and Iran pursues its nuclear dreams.

But here's where things get a bit more complicated than Rice in her fluency makes them sound, because the forces of moderation -- the "mainstream actors," as she calls them -- are hardly all democratic, and the fruits of democracy are hardly all moderate. The good guys, in her view, include dictatorships (not her word) such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while democratic victors include extremist actors such as Hamas in the Palestinian territory and Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq.

It grows even more complicated when Rice attempts to fit the neat strategic frame of moderation vs. extremism over the mess her administration has helped create in Iraq. Rice says the United States must encourage Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders of the "more moderate center" to work together and to isolate and move against their respective militias. But what if those parties see each other as the enemy, and each value their own militia or terrorists as means of pressuring the other?

Rice is determined to see "real advantages for the United States" in the mess of today's Mideast -- a "new and much more favorable strategic context in the Middle East," she said at one point. But is she seeing something that Baker and Hamilton missed -- or something that isn't there?

The administration's credibility for such visions is near zero, and justifiably so, given its record of wishful thinking. Rice noted that administration insiders had debated before the war whether it would be "good enough to overthrow Saddam Hussein and replace him with a strongman," and had decided emphatically no, and had understood even then that the democracy-building alternative would be difficult.

But then why did they not share that with the public? And why did they fail so abjectly and repeatedly to prepare for the difficulties? Why, even now, does the president seem to be re-creating the conditions for the infighting that plagued his first term, hiring a defense secretary who seems much closer to Baker than to Rice in his view of the world?

You can't help but be impressed as you listen to Rice discourse on how the region has changed and why the old approaches won't work. You feel less certain, when she's finished, that she or her boss have come up with any alternatives that will.

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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