Reading Them the Riyadh Act
From the July 4 / July 11, 2005 issue: Condoleezza Rice prods our dictatorial allies.
Jul 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 40 • By JONATHAN KARL
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
In another first, Rice devoted a considerable amount of her public and private comments to political reform and, specifically, women's rights. The Saudis, however, aren't exactly shaking in their sandals. They figure U.S. concerns about the flow of oil and the fight against terrorism will continue to trump all this talk about freedom and democracy. When asked by a reporter about the three political prisoners Rice wants released, Prince Saud said curtly, "I told the secretary of state that they have broken a law."
But both the Saudis and the Egyptians feel a need to at least appear like they are reforming, and that is a start. At Rice's joint press conference with Prince Saud, the Saudis put three women journalists in the front row. They were dressed in the traditional abaya, covering them from head to toe in black--or almost head to toe. One of the women wore open-toed shoes revealing nail polish so bright it was impossible not to notice. Prince Saud called on the women for the first and last questions. "We like to open with the ladies and close with the ladies," he said. Rice seemed impressed by the presence of the women, telling reporters later "that was both interesting and important." The gesture, however, may have been more patronizing than meaningful. Saudi Arabia has neither freedom of the press nor basic rights for women.
By virtually any measure of political rights and civil liberties, Saudi Arabia deserves a spot on Rice's "outposts of tyranny" list. Three separate State Department reports over the past year--on human rights, on religious freedom, on human trafficking--portray Saudi Arabia as one of the most repressive places on earth. Freedom House gives Saudi Arabia its lowest rating for political freedom, a distinction shared by North Korea. Three of the six countries Rice called "outposts of tyranny" (Iran, Belarus, and Zimbabwe) are actually rated higher by Freedom House, that is, they are more free than Saudi Arabia. The Freedom House ratings don't paint a pretty picture of Egypt either--giving it just slightly better marks than Iran and Belarus.
None of this mattered much to U.S. policymakers before President Bush put democracy in the Middle East at the center of his foreign policy. Rice's speech in Cairo, echoing the theme of President Bush's second inaugural address, provides a new yardstick to measure U.S. policy in the region. As Rice said in Cairo, "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. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."
The speech was crafted by a 25-year-old speechwriter named Christian Brose; his earlier drafts went even further, prompting one senior career State Department official to remind Rice's team about the economic and strategic importance of Saudi Arabia. "Do you want $11-dollar-a-gallon gasoline?" the official asked.
In a measure of how important the White House viewed the speech and Rice's trip to the region, Mike Gerson came along for the ride. Gerson is one of the three or four most influential people in the White House. Gerson penned the presidential inaugural; he has also earned a reputation as perhaps the best presidential speechwriter since Ted Sorensen. Gerson, though, has traded in his speechwriting job to become a senior policy adviser with a vast portfolio that includes the democracy agenda. In the two days before the speech, Gerson was on hand, making edits and taking notes.
Rice's words and actions on her first tour of the Middle East as secretary of state were bold and dramatic compared with those of her predecessors. But no other administration has ever really tried pushing democracy in the Arab world. Jimmy Carter did press the shah of Iran on human rights in the late 1970s, but the results were disastrous, as the shah fell from power only to be replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini. And not even Carter, with all his talk about human rights, put pressure on Egypt or Saudi Arabia.