War Stories

Waking Up to Reality

Condi makes nice in the Middle East.

Condoleezza Rice. Click image to expand.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice 

Condoleezza Rice is awakening from a dream.

She snapped to in Cairo, one of the stops on her whirlwind tour through the Middle East. Back in February 2005, Rice canceled a trip to Egypt to protest President Hosni Mubarak’s arrest of opposition candidate Ayman Nour. In June of that year, she finally did go to Cairo, but mainly to deliver a speech at the American University demanding that Mubarak grant his people liberty. “We are all concerned for the future of Egypt’s reforms when peaceful supporters of democracy—men and women—are not free from violence,” she declared. “The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees—and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice.”

During this week’s trip, according to Michael Slackman in today’s New York Times, Secretary Rice was much more demure. “I especially want to thank President Mubarak for receiving me and for spending so much time with me to talk about the issues of common interest here in the Middle East,” she said at a press conference. “Obviously the relationship with Egypt is an important strategic relationship—one that we value greatly.”

As Slackman graphically points out, Egypt’s record on democracy and human rights hasn’t improved since Rice’s jeremiad a mere 19 months ago. What has changed? It’s become bracingly clear—to Mubarak, to the would-be reformers across the Middle East, even to Secretary Rice—that America no longer possesses the power or credibility to change the situation. And, at least Rice seems finally to realize, to continue pounding the moral point, simply for the sake of sounding noble and feeling good, would only diminish our standing further and possibly worsen the prospects for Egyptian reform.

The overriding reality at the moment, alas, is that—for cooperation on Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine; for the whole panoply of Middle Eastern issues—the United States needs Egypt more than Egypt needs the United States.

In her 2005 speech, Rice famously said, “For 60 years, my country … pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region … and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” But now, less than two years later, the region teeters on the edge of the abyss like at no time in recent history, and Rice suddenly sees there’s value in stability after all.

In so doing, Rice is but returning to her roots. Way back, during the 2000 presidential campaign, when she was candidate George W. Bush’s chief foreign-policy adviser, Rice wrote an article titled “Promoting the National Interest” for Foreign Affairs magazine. In it, she called for a renewed focus in national-security policy on “power politics, great powers, and power balances.” She noted, “To be sure, there is nothing wrong with doing something to benefit all humanity, but that is, in a sense, a second order effect.” She continued:

American values are universal … [and] the triumph of these values is most assuredly easier when the international balance of power favors those who believe in them. But sometimes that favorable balance of power takes time to achieve. … And in the meantime, it is simply not possible to ignore and isolate other powerful states that do not share those values.

The phrasing is cold, even icy, a vestige perhaps from Rice’s days in the White House of Bush’s father, where she worked as deputy to National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, the man she once called her most vital mentor, who believed—even more than his own mentor, Henry Kissinger—that moral factors had no place in foreign policy.

But the gist of Rice’s article was also in line with the views of an earlier mentor, the late Josef Korbel, her first professor of international relations at the University of Denver, where Rice earned her Ph.D. (He was also the father of Madeleine Albright). A Czech émigré who escaped the Nazi occupation, Korbel thought America should support those struggling for freedom in the world. However, he emphasized (in several lectures on file at the university’s archival library) that, as long as we lived in a world of nation-states and ideological division, “we cannot afford, nor do we dare, to think of abandoning a diplomacy of balance of power.” To do otherwise, he said, would be to indulge in “dreams.”

Korbel’s prize student, Condi Rice, has been locked in a dream the past two years—the dream of her latest mentor, George W. Bush, who declared in January 2005, in his Second Inaugural Address, that, since freedom is God’s gift to humanity, the main goal of American foreign policy will be to unshackle that gift, to spread freedom and abolish tyranny “in all the world.”

It was the following month that Rice canceled her trip to Egypt, and five months later that she delivered her speech at American University. Read in the light of all the disastrous developments since, it’s a relic of stunning innocence. Here are some excerpts:

The day is coming when the promises of a fully free and democratic world, once thought impossible, will … seem inevitable. … There are those who say that democracy leads to chaos, or conflict, or terror. In fact, the opposite is true. … Ladies and Gentlemen: Across the Middle East today, millions of citizens are voicing their aspirations for liberty and for democracy … [and] demanding freedom for themselves and democracy for their countries. To these courageous men and women, I say today: All free nations will stand with you as you secure the blessings of your own liberty.

She can almost be forgiven for sounding like the Western capitalist equivalent of a Trotskyist. The winter of 2004-05 was a heady time: the Rose Revolution in ex-Soviet Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the free elections in Iraq. Freedom seemed “on the march,” as President Bush exclaimed.

But by the spring or summer, the march had sputtered to a crawl, then dissolved into a spat. Popular elections without democratic institutions merely reflected—then hardened—social and ethnic divisions. New democratic governments, without the political legitimacy or economic support to mend those divisions, dwindled into anarchy or fell back on authoritarianism.

To a student of history, as Rice surely is, none of this should have been surprising. A student of history turned maker of policy should have taken steps to prop up the hopeful developments instead of merely touting them as the inexorable dialectics of History. Democracy is worth supporting and promoting; to do so is a vital element of a democratic nation’s foreign policy. But a policy, even one designed to change the world, must start out with the world as it is.

Hosni Mubarak is hardly an admirable figure, but it’s not hard to see why he viewed Rice’s 2005 Cairo speech as not only an affront but a delusion. Now, two years later, when the prospects for democracy seem so less bright—and after some democratic elections have produced results so grim—it’s not hard to see why Rice herself has taken refuge in the old, albeit uninspiring, verities.