Speeches don't change the world, but they sometimes put down markers for policymakers and help ordinary folks understand what's going on. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's speech in Cairo this week about Middle East democracy struck me as one of those important yardsticks.

The initial take on Rice's speech focused on her evaluation of the democratic progress of other nations -- of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, specifically. She pressed those countries to reform their political systems, while noting that local reformers must lead and define the agenda and set the pace of change. Amen.

But an overlooked aspect of Rice's speech was that it established guideposts by which to measure the policy of the United States. She enunciated a pro-democracy position so forcefully that if the Bush administration deviates from it, or undermines its credibility through belligerent, anti-democratic actions, it will be open to the charge of hypocrisy.

That "glass house" aspect of Rice's proclamation can help keep the Bush administration honest about some of its toughest foreign policy decisions. It's the secular equivalent of "What Would Jesus Do?" What would a democratic nation that cares about the rule of law do about the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? What energy policies are appropriate for a nation that advocates change in Saudi Arabia?

Rice was not advancing an expedient wartime ethic, of the sort we have heard too often from the Bush administration, but a universal moral one. America's mission, by her account, isn't a war against terrorism but a struggle for democracy. That may sound like a mere change in semantics, but it moves the United States from a situation in which every Muslim is a potential enemy to one in which every Muslim is a potential ally. Again, amen.

The signature lines in the speech were: "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course." That was the clearest enunciation yet of a policy that has been evolving since Sept. 11, 2001. The United States has shifted from being a status-quo power in the Middle East whose interests were narrowly defined around oil to a transforming power whose interests are broadly defined around political and economic reform.

The speech worked on several levels. I liked the fact that it was delivered at the American University in Cairo. That great school and its sister institution, the American University of Beirut, have for decades shown the Arab world our best face. Generations of Arabs came to understand America through those schools, and to love our culture of freedom even as they often hated our policies. And I liked Rice's explicit reference to her own experience as an African American and a woman. In answer to a question after the speech, she recalled her childhood in Birmingham, Ala., and the "patronizing" view that black people didn't need or want democracy.

I also liked Rice's caution in discussing the role of underground groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Until those groups openly embrace the rule of law and forswear violence, she implied, they cannot play a positive role in democratic change.

The challenge now is to turn Rice's fine words into reality. The administration will need good answers when Arabs ask: What about Guantanamo Bay? What about Abu Ghraib? What about the Palestinians? Where are you going in Iraq? But if the administration can be consistent in applying its ideals, and follow the markers Rice laid down, perhaps America can begin to find its way out of the dangerous thicket into which it has wandered since Sept. 11, 2001.

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I argued last week that militias have become a fact of life in Iraq, and that they are helping maintain stability in the Kurdish north and Shiite south of the country. Given that, I said, these groups may buy time for the only viable path to a stable, democratic Iraq, which is the slow process of building a national army. I noted that, given the spread of militias, an equivalent local force in Sunni areas is inevitable and appropriate.

Those comments prompted an e-mail exchange with a U.S. military commander. He argued that the range of local security solutions varies widely across Iraq. Shiite militias may be keeping the peace in Basra and Nasiriyah, but in Karbala, Najaf, Babil and Kut, it's the local police force, led by powerful local chiefs, that is dominant. So let me amend my earlier comment: U.S. policy shouldn't embrace militias, per se, but it should recognize the patchwork of temporary local security solutions and use it to stabilize Iraq until a national army is ready.

davidignatius@washpost.com