The Magazine


Travels with the new secretary of state.

Apr 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 27 • By JONATHAN KARL
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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.