Rice Stresses the Positive Amid Mideast Setbacks

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What many Americans may see as chaos and turmoil in the Middle East is partly the result of the Bush administration hastening historical forces that are destined to reshape the region, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday. She added that the results will not be known for decades.

"The old Middle East was not going to stay," Rice said. "Let's stop mourning the old Middle East. It was not so great, and it was not going to survive anyway."

Rice, in a year-end interview with a small group of newspaper reporters, emphasized the positive in a year that saw the radical Islamic groups Hamas and Hezbollah gain strength in the region, Iran shrug off international demands to suspend its nuclear program, and Iraq teeter on the edge of civil war. She attributed the setbacks to "counterrevolutionary forces" seeking to undo U.S. success in the region.

Rice, who frequently makes historical analogies, likened the current period to the challenges faced by the United States after the end of World War II. "Go back and put yourself in that time," she said. There were "things that could have gone very badly and thrown the whole beginning of the Cold War in a completely different direction," she said, ticking off the gains made by French communists, the civil war in Greece, the victory of Chinese communists and other setbacks.

"Does it look that much better than it looks now in the Middle East? I don't think so," Rice said.

"When you are at the beginning of a big historical transition, it's very tough," Rice said. "I remember what Harry Truman was able to do, which was to take some very difficult circumstances and some fairly unpopular policies and find a few people across the aisle who were willing to support a long-term strategy of containment."

At the time, the onetime scholar of Eastern European militaries said, "who could have predicted" that decades later Germany would be unified or that NATO could hold summits on the territory of the former Soviet Union? She expressed the hope that the release of the Iraq Study Group report had set the stage for a consensus "to find a sustainable place for American policy in what everybody understands is the beginning of a long struggle, not the end."

Rice stressed that she was not being a Pollyanna. "I'm not arguing that it is just going great," she said. "There are a lot of difficult places, of course, and some of these places teeter on the edge of really bad outcomes." But she said that American policymakers had long tolerated bad outcomes in the Middle East for the sake of stability, including then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds, Syria's occupation of Lebanon, and then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's "stealing the Palestinian people blind" and cavorting with terrorism.

"Some of it [the current turmoil] is that America challenged some of those old bargains, whether it was deciding that Saddam Hussein finally had to go or saying Yasser Arafat wasn't a partner for peace, yes," Rice said. "But that Middle East was going to break down; it had to break down. You weren't going to continue to suppress all of these negative trends, and so one way or another it was going to come apart."

Rice said she is not given to providing "day-to-day assessments" of how she is doing but looks for opportunities that might allow for the "next brick" to be laid for the future. "One does not shift strategy every week if one thinks you have the right strategy," she said.

"At the beginning of big historic transitions, yes, everything is on the table and, yes, it can go wrong, but it can also go right," Rice said. "If you just sit in the middle of it and say, 'Oh my God, it's all going wrong,' you miss the hooks, the pillars on which you begin to build to make it go right." But she said historians will not be able to judge whether the Bush administration made the right choices "for decades -- and I mean decades."

Among the other issues discussed in the interview:

· The administration is not planning to make any gestures to the Cuban government, such as easing travel restrictions, when longtime leader Fidel Castro dies. "The worst betrayal would be to hand in any way a sense of outreach to someone who may think he is just going to succeed" Castro and become another dictator, Rice said.

· Rice declined to apologize to Khaled al-Masri, the German citizen mistakenly seized in Macedonia on suspicion of terrorism and interrogated for months in an Afghan prison, only to be freed later. The case has stirred outrage in Germany, and Masri has sought an explanation and an apology from the U.S. government. "We have done what we can to deal with the circumstances here, to try to act responsibly, and we are going to continue to act responsibly," Rice said.

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