Diplomatic Pouch / May 5, 2009
By Larry Luxner
Despite the 9/11 attacks and America's continuing war in Iraq, there's far more reason to be optimistic about the Middle East today than on Jan. 20, 2001 — the day George W. Bush moved into the White House.
That's the view from Bush's last secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. Now a political science professor at Stanford University, Rice spoke Sunday night at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, in her first public appearance in Washington since leaving office. Her lecture followed a talk earlier in the day with 4th, 5th and 6th-graders at the Jewish Day School of the Nation's Capital.
"Whenever I've been asked how history will judge the Bush administration, I remind people that today's headlines and history's judgements are rarely the same," Rice said at the fundraiser attended by 450 people, most of them paying $25 or more to hear her speak. "One has to think about other impossible things that we now see as inevitable."
Rice recalled how, as the White House specialist on Soviet affairs from 1989 to 1991, she was lucky enough to witness the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union.
"In 1947, when two million Europeans were still starving, and in 1948, when the Berlin crisis split Germany and Harry Truman made the fateful decision to recognize the State of Israel, or in 1949, when the Chinese communists won and in 1950 the Korean War erupted, do you think anybody would have believed that in 2006, I would have the great pleasure of attending a NATO summit in Latvia with the president of the United States?"
Looking back, she argued that eight years of the Bush administration did bring about a measure of hope to the Middle East — despite what her critics may say.
"When we came into office in 2001, the most dominant factor was the raging intifada that was killing thousands of people, with suicide bombs going off not in the West Bank but in Tel Aviv. This had largely been brought about by Yasser Arafat, who was determined not to make peace with Israel. I will never forget a tank shell that went off in Bethlehem, blowing a hole in the Church of the Nativity."
Furthermore, Saddam Hussein still ruled Iraq and Syrian forces were still occupying Lebanon.
"The Middle East of 2001 was not at all a hopeful place, and there was no debate on democracy. We were told that somehow the Mideast was an exception, even though democracy was growing in Latin America and even in Africa — that it was not consistent with Islam to talk about democracy."
"But now, there is a debate, and women have the right to vote in Kuwait. Today, there is a democracy debate in places like Egypt. Saddam Hussein is gone from Iraq, the Syrians are gone from Lebanon, and the Lebanese government is very pro-American. And we've finally got to the place where Iran is seen as the problem, not the United States."
First during her lecture, and later in a subsquent dialogue with Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, Rice said she "understands" that many people were opposed to the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.
"But it is also true that Iraq — one of the most geostrategically important countries in the world — is no longer run by a murderous tyrant, but by a democratic leadership and friend of the United States. That is, for us, a strategic improvement, and Iraq is still a bulwark against Iran."
Rice conceded that "while we were not able to deliver a Palestinian state, some very important things happened between 2001 and 2008. A negotiated peace really did begin to take hold between the Israelis and Palestinians, and here I give tremendous credit to Ariel Sharon. I knew Ariel Sharon and I liked him very much. He never told you he'd do something he wouldn't do."
The 66th secretary of state said she was "distressed" the morning she learned that Hamas — and not the Fatah party controlled by Mahmoud Abbas — had won the 2006 Palestinian elections the U.S. government had pushed for.
"All the predictions had been that Fatah would win. But one reason Hamas won is that they were better organized in the mosques than Fatah, which had been corrupted by Yasser Arafat," she said.
Warning that "you don't fix that problem by not having elections," she said "I'm afraid we're going to have to tolerate some elections that don't turn out the way we want, as we find a balance between Islam and democracy. The good news about Iraq was that the first elections were pretty sectarian, but that the Islamists did less well in the second set of elections."
Recalling the moment of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Rice said she was "shell-shocked, and I remained so" for several days after.
"The image of Americans jumping out of 80th-story buildings is something you never forget," she said. "You tell yourself you did what you could, and you believe it intellectually but never in your heart, because it happened on your watch. The fact is, America had to go on. I am grateful, not proud, that it did not happen again on our watch."
Asked what was the most serious mistake of the Bush administration, Rice replied: "It's going to take awhile to catalogue all of them."
"But the one that comes to mind, was our assumptions about what would be left in Iraq. The place collapsed and then we ended up trying to use our own people to be their civil service. It's like, if you live in Gaithersburg, you would never expect Washington to fix your sewer system — and we weren't very good at insurgency."
Rice defended her boss's decision to send additional troops into Iraq.
"In my heart, I was worried," she said. "I thought if the surge did not work, then we had played our last card. I knew that more troops was a good idea, but they had to do something different. We couldn't just keep doing what we were doing."
The former secretary of state declined to answer a written question from the audience about her disagreement with former Vice President Dick Cheney over the detention of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists at Guantánamo.
Responding to Wieseltier's question about "the T word" — torture — Rice said the White House's decision to use "enhancement interrogation techniques" on those suspects is an appropriate subject for debate.
"It's important to remember the times. People of good will had the hardest possible dilemmas and choices. This was tough stuff, the kind of stuff I never thought I'd be talking about," she said.
"Up to the day we left, the president wanted to do everything he could to protect the country. There were second-wave attacks planned. We knew virtually nothing about how al-Qaeda operated. We were as deaf, dumb and blind about al-Qaeda on Sept. 10 as we could possibly be," she said. "But every time I talked to the president about it, he said it had to be within our legal obligation. That is why we sought an opinion from the Justice Department and from the attorney-general himself."
Quizzed on Iran's nuclear ambitions, Rice noted that the costs to Tehran's leadership for pursuing weapons of mass destruction are getting higher every day, in the form of international sanctions against Iranian financial institutions.
"I'm quite confident that moderates in Iran don't exist, but there may be reasonable people who may be willing to stop incurring those costs and make a deal with us," she said, adding that Iran's national elections in June will be a barometer of which faction is gaining the upper hand.
"If we can get a better alignment politically, then perhaps some deal is possible," she said. "Our concern is not acquiesce to Iran's aggressive behavior in the Middle East. Given Iran's agenda, which is bound to clash with Israel, it's doubtful that the kind of stability we associated with the Soviet nuclear deterrence could be attained in the Middle East."
Rice added: "Peace in the Middle East will not come about without American leadership. Whatever you think about the policies of any one administration, never lose sight of the fact that the United States is the most generous, the most compassionate and the freest country on the face of the earth. We need to remind people of that."