Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday emphasized the importance of drawing attention to women's rights in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East but said the United States did "have some boundaries about what it is we are trying to achieve."
Rice said the administration's push for democracy in the region needed to respect cultural traditions. She said, for instance, that she had no interest in promoting the high-profile cause of giving women in Saudi Arabia the right to drive. They are currently prohibited by law from doing so.
"It's just a line that I have not wanted to cross," Rice told reporters traveling with her as she flew from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to attend an international conference on Iraq in Brussels on Wednesday.
In a major speech in Cairo on Monday, Rice strongly criticized Egypt and Saudi Arabia for their democratic failings and urged both longtime U.S. allies to allow opposition parties and nongovernmental groups to have a greater voice. After the speech, she flew to Riyadh to raise some of those issues directly with the Saudi government.
Rice told reporters that Saudi women needed broader political rights to challenge and possibly change the political and cultural calculus of their nation. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and only recently held municipal elections. Women do not have the right to vote, but the Saudi government has made vague statements about hoping to eventually grant women voting rights.
"I am quite certain that when women are able to express their aspirations and their views in the political system . . . that we will see what is really custom and what really does matter to Saudi women," Rice said.
Rice said the Saudi government had made "a little" progress in the education of women. She said she was pleased to see female Saudi journalists at her news conference with Foreign Minister Saud Faisal, though their presence at such events is not unusual. Many of the women, dressed in the traditional abaya, a head-to-toe black covering, were seated in the first row, and Saud made a point of having them ask the first and last questions.
"We need to continue to draw attention to the fact that we do think that a democracy is not a democracy if women are not fully included in it," Rice said.
When the administration began promoting democracy in the region, there was a strong backlash from a number of governments, which accused the United States of trying to impose its values. Administration officials have worked hard to combat that impression. Rice, in her speech, spoke of general principles for functioning democracies, stressing that the United States itself had "every reason for humility" in how it evolved as a democracy. "We have to do this in a way that does not appear to be that the United States has all the answers," Rice said Tuesday.
Yet Rice said she now spends "a lot of time" raising the subject of democracy in her closed-door meetings with foreign officials.
Discussing the issue is difficult because "you are dealing with a region with deeply entrenched views and attitudes," Rice said, adding that the administration had "an obligation" to try to reshape the "international stage" following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Iraq conference Wednesday will attempt to get the needs of the Iraqi government in sync with the technical expertise and financing sources of the rest of the world, Rice said. Diplomats and foreign ministers from about 80 countries -- including Iran and Syria -- plan to attend.