The Magazine

Condiplomacy

Travels with the new secretary of state.

Apr 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 27 • By JONATHAN KARL
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Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.


--George W. Bush, January 20, 2005

WHEN THE LEADING OPPOSITION FIGURE in Egypt was arrested on questionable charges in late January, Condoleezza Rice saw a perfect test of President Bush's inaugural promise to stand with democratic reformers around the world. Egyptian authorities jailed Ayman Nour just nine days after Bush's inaugural address. "They couldn't have picked a worse time to do this," Rice told Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council when she heard the news. Indeed. Rice first directed State Department spokesman Richard Boucher to make an uncharacteristically blunt statement. "We are concerned by the signal that the arrest sends," Boucher said, warning the Egyptians against "rough treatment" of Nour and noting, "He is one of Egypt's most prominent opposition leaders." Two weeks later, with Nour still in prison, Rice gave Hosni Mubarak's government the diplomatic equivalent of a kick in the teeth.

At the end of a meeting at the State Department with Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Gheit and a sizable contingent of Egyptian and U.S. officials, Rice made her move. She asked everybody--except Gheit, the Egyptian ambassador, and David Satterfield of the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs Bureau--to leave the room. No note-takers, no posturing. Just blunt talk. "She shot him over Ayman Nour, just shot him," said a source familiar with the discussion. Rice's message was unambiguous: Nour's arrest threatened to poison U.S.-Egyptian relations. If he were not released, she warned, she might cancel plans for an upcoming trip to Cairo. Gheit said the Nour case was working its way through the Egyptian legal system and U.S. pressure would be unhelpful. This phase of the meeting lasted more than 20 minutes, as reporters waited for Rice, now uncharacteristically late, to appear at a joint press conference with Gheit. Stung by the bluntness of Rice's criticism, the Egyptians insisted she not mention Nour's name at the press conference.

She didn't have to say his name. When a reporter asked whether she had talked about Nour's imprisonment in the meeting, Rice avoided diplomatic niceties: "Yes, I did raise our concerns, our very strong concerns about this case," she said. "I did talk at some length about the importance of this issue to the United States, to the American administration, to the American Congress, to the American people." Visibly shaken, Gheit stood silently at Rice's side. Nour remained in jail, and Rice cancelled her long-planned trip to Egypt.

If her first months in office are any indication, Secretary Rice's State Department is going to be radically different from Colin Powell's. Rice has forbidden her senior staff to make even off-the-record comparisons between her and Powell, but they don't need to. Rice's senior advisers like to say that she will be an effective secretary of state because when people talk to her they believe they are talking to the president. Powell may have been respected around the world, but he was viewed as out of step with the administration. As a result, when he spoke to a foreign leader, there was often a nagging question: Is Colin Powell speaking for the Bush administration or is he speaking for himself? Nobody asks that question about Condoleezza Rice. So when Rice hits somebody, it stings.

Rice's proximity to the president, combined with the sense of urgency she brings to her new job, has turned the State Department into a political power center again, the kind of place where Karen Hughes, one of President Bush's two or three closest advisers, would take a third-tier job. Even Dina Powell, who as director of White House personnel had no shortage of opportunities in the administration, chose to go to work for Rice as an assistant secretary of state. The State Department has been something of a political backwater for more than a decade. In the Clinton years, Warren Christopher was so inactive that a running joke among Foreign Service officers during his tenure was to complain about something and add, "None of this would be happening if Warren Christopher were alive." Madeleine Albright traveled more, but that only contributed to the perception that she was out of the loop and AWOL when the major national security decisions were being made by the National Security Council. And in George W. Bush's first term, Powell made his biggest headlines when he was at odds with the White House.

Rice keeps a frenetic travel schedule, and in most countries, she meets with the head of state, not just the foreign minister. Yet she also sets great store by unofficial stops. Senior adviser Jim Wilkinson, Rice's Michael Deaver, plans carefully constructed photo opportunities for each of the secretary's trips. In Japan, Rice was greeted by a 600-pound sumo wrestler; in China, she went onto an ice skating rink (without skates) with some of China's best young figure skaters; in Paris, she visited a music school; in India, she toured Humayun's tomb. All this smacks of a political campaign, and in a way it is. Rice is campaigning to improve America's image around the world. The pictures often run on the front pages of big foreign newspapers and get considerable play on regional television. The visual message is effective: a secretary of state reaching beyond government leaders.

Although Rice's mantra since her confirmation hearings has been "The time for diplomacy is now," she is showing that she can land some punches too. She's spent considerable effort charming the Europeans with diplomatic talk about the transatlantic alliance, but when the European Union signaled its intention to lift its embargo on arms sales to China, Rice got tough. In a closed-door meeting with E.U. officials on her first trip to Europe, she said she did not want to see European technology aimed at American sailors patrolling in the Pacific. At a particularly tough meeting with the E.U. political leadership, the befuddled acting president of the E.U., prime minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker, spilled coffee on his lap.

When the E.U. continued to move toward lifting the embargo, Rice publicly stepped up the pressure. At a press conference in South Korea, where some 30,000 American troops are deployed, Rice said Europe should not contribute to China's already alarming defense build-up, adding, "It is the United States--not Europe--that has defended the Pacific." By the next day, the Europeans, citing increased Chinese belligerence toward Taiwan, had postponed their decision on the embargo.

Rice even got tough privately with Canada over what she considered inflammatory comments by Canadian prime minister Paul Martin. Martin announced Canada would not join U.S. efforts on missile defense, and then acidly warned the United States not to use Canadian airspace without permission. "This is our space, our airspace. We're a sovereign nation and you don't intrude on a sovereign nation's airspace without seeking permission," Martin told reporters. Rice was to travel to Ottawa in April but abruptly cancelled her plans. Officially the trip wasn't happening because of "scheduling" issues, but the Canadians got the message.

RICE SEEMS MOST DETERMINED to make her mark with the vigorous pursuit of the president's freedom and democracy agenda, which is remarkable considering Rice's intellectual roots. When she signed on as a foreign policy tutor for George W. Bush in 1998, Rice had a firmly established reputation as a realist with little appetite for moralistic foreign policy. In her worldview back then, values were important, but the national interest was narrowly defined, and the overriding goal was stability. She was a protégée of President George Herbert Walker Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. It was Scowcroft who, just six months after the Chinese army slaughtered peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, went to Beijing and toasted the very Chinese leaders who had the blood of the students on their hands.

As Scowcroft's Soviet specialist on the National Security Council, Rice was asked to craft a reassessment of U.S. strategy toward the Soviet Union. She advised a cautious approach to Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union, emphasizing stability over democratic revolution. In July 1991, George H.W. Bush gave his infamous speech in Ukraine warning those trying to shake off Russian domination against "suicidal nationalism." William Safire dubbed it the "Chicken Kiev" speech and the biggest foreign policy blunder of the first Bush presidency. Although Rice can't be blamed for the speech (she'd left the White House several months earlier), it wasn't inconsistent with the course she had advised vis à vis the crumbling Soviet Union.

A decade later, in the midst of the 2000 presidential campaign, Rice laid out a realist foreign policy in a lengthy Foreign Affairs article entitled simply "Promoting the National Interest." She criticized the Clinton administration's attempts at nation-building in places like Kosovo and Haiti and warned against an excessively moralistic foreign policy. "To be sure, there is nothing wrong with doing something that benefits all humanity," she wrote, "but that is a second-order effect." Rice was asked about the article, as she often is these days, by a Japanese student after she gave a speech in Tokyo. Rice joked, "It shows, never write an article and then go into government; people might actually read it."

For his part, President Bush says he never read that Foreign Affairs article, but he didn't need to. Months after the September 11 attacks, Nicholas Lemann wrote a piece in the New Yorker asking, "Has Condoleezza Rice changed George W. Bush or has he changed her?" Nearly three years later the answer seems clear: Bush changed Rice. The student with almost no foreign policy experience ended up reshaping the foreign policy worldview of his tutor. By all indications, Condoleezza Rice has taken over the State Department as a true believer in the president's democratic crusade. The realist seems to have been converted into a full-fledged foreign policy moralist.

I asked Rice about the "Chicken Kiev" speech last month while she was on her first trip as secretary of state. "I think that what they were trying to say is that it was important that any movement towards independence take into account the issues of a Soviet Union that was not yet disarmed of its nuclear weapons and was a very big power on the European continent," she said. And, in fact, that was exactly what Rice was saying when she wrote her reassessment of Soviet policy for the National Security Council in 1989. "The fact is, of course, by July of 1991, the world was very different than that speech seemed to describe. The Soviet Union was breaking up; the Soviet Union was breaking up peacefully. But, that's a lot easier to see in hindsight than it might have been to see in July of 1991. So, you know, it's always very easy to go back and to critique a speech that far after the fact and say that you weren't being foresightful. It's a lot easier in 2005 to see that, than it was in 1991."

Rice doesn't want to be caught on the wrong side of history this time, especially when it comes to the Middle East. She has very clearly signaled that she is serious about pushing for democratic reform in the region, even if that means complicating U.S. relations with key allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Privately, she acknowledges that the Condoleezza Rice who worked for George H.W. Bush would be surprised to see herself pressing reliable American allies like Egypt on democratic reforms. The new Rice has instructed the State Department's notoriously cautious Near Eastern Affairs bureau to put democratic reform at the top of the foreign policy agenda for the region. "We used to mention reform in our discussions" with Arab governments, says a senior official who has worked in Near Eastern Affairs for more than a decade. "But it was the fourth or fifth item on the agenda, and it was never taken too seriously. Now it's at or near the top of the agenda for virtually every meeting."

It's not hard to imagine the old Rice espousing the realist view that pushing for democracy in the Middle East will backfire. According to this view, public opinion in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia is anti-American and extremist, while the autocratic governments are reliably pro-American. In London, I asked Rice, "Don't you have to be careful what you wish for? In countries like Saudi Arabia and even Egypt, if you had full democratic elections tomorrow, you could end up with governments that are more radically Islamic and more anti-American than you have now."

The old Rice would have answered yes. The new Rice sees that U.S. support for repressive and unpopular governments is part of what fuels anti-Americanism in the region. And, yes, values matter. She told me, "Having some faith in values that have worked to bring human dignity and pride to so many parts of the world is something that America of all places should be willing to stand for."

RICE HASN'T CHANGED COMPLETELY. The new Rice picks her pro-democracy fights with an eye to power politics. She gets more cautious as she heads further east. On her recent trip to China, Rice had a private meeting with President Hu Jintao but avoided any in-depth discussion of human rights or democracy. Instead, she used her time with the president of China to talk about immediate concerns like North Korea, Taiwan, and intellectual property rights. But at the end of the meeting, she told President Hu, "I'm going to church," and headed off to one of just five officially sanctioned Protestant churches in Beijing.

Rice saw it as a Palm Sunday statement about religious freedom, and at a press conference the following day she spoke passionately about the importance of religious freedom. But the Chinese long ago became accustomed to U.S. officials' going to the few legal churches in Beijing. In fact, Secretary Albright had visited the same church Rice attended. The pastor of this state-licensed church, in a sermon about Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on the day Rice was there, emphasized, "The Lord did not come to overthrow an earthly government, he came to overthrow evil in the hearts of men."

Rice will push China, but only so far. She opted against pursuing a resolution condemning China at the U.N. Human Rights Commission this year, citing progress on human rights and the release of Rebiya Kadeer, a celebrated political prisoner jailed for the crime of sending newspaper clippings overseas. Kadeer was released just days before Rice's visit, saying, "Thanks to the American government, American people, they freed me." But shortly after the State Department opted against a resolution criticizing China's human rights record, a reminder came that there is much to criticize. Chinese authorities charged democracy proponent Zhang Lin with subversion simply for trying to attend memorial services for ousted Communist party leader Zhao Ziyang. Zhang Lin had spent eight years in prison during the 1990s for pro-democracy activities; now he is likely to face another stiff sentence.

Rice also soft-pedaled the democracy agenda in her meeting with President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad. Musharraf, or "the general" as President Bush called him in the 2000 campaign, has come under fire for reneging on his promise to shed his military uniform and give up his leadership of the armed forces. Reporters asked Rice at least four times while she was in Pakistan whether she had brought up the issue with Musharraf. She never answered, but senior officials acknowledge she did not. What she did repeatedly emphasize is that the United States will hold Musharraf to his promise of presidential elections two years from now. Standing next to Rice at a press conference, the Pakistani foreign minister pledged "totally free and fair" elections in 2007.

Rice sees the best chance--and most urgent need--for democratic gains in the Middle East, and it is there that she will push hardest. She can already claim some successes. Ayman Nour was released from prison on bail on March 12, and President Mubarak, facing American pressure, announced that Egypt will hold a multicandidate presidential election. This exercise, though, may prove to be a sham. In the past, Mubarak, president since the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, has never faced a political opponent. And even in the upcoming election, all candidates will have to be approved by the Mubarak-controlled parliament. One test of the election's legitimacy will be whether Nour, who declared his candidacy shortly after he was freed, is allowed to run. Either way, Secretary Rice seems willing to keep the pressure up.

Jonathan Karl is senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News.