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MediaWatch:Magazines
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The Atlantic Profiles "Rice Diplomacy"
US "Grand Bargain" for Middle East a "Grand Illusion"?
05/22/2007 3:19 PM ET
Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty

The marginalization of then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice during President Bush's first term has been documented in numerous books and articles. But since Donald Rumsfeld left the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney was demoted on the list of Presidential favorites, the new Secretary of State has moved to the forefront in advising the White House on Middle East policy.

Now the public representative of US diplomacy, Rice has tended to keep her own personal views in such reserve that there is some mystique regarding how her pre-existing ideology might influence her consultations with the President.

In this month's Atlantic (sub. req.), David Samuels documents the new diplomatic initiative the Secretary of State has undertaken in the Middle East, and also closely examines Rice's worldview for clues on how to interpret her efforts.

Samuels writes that:

"Rice’s detractors, and even some of her close friends, see her worldview, which is both intellectually coherent and heartfelt, as deterministic and lacking any real appreciation for the influence of local factors on big historical events. A common term for the core of her thought among her colleagues, past and present, is “the theology,” a reference to her bedrock faith in the likelihood, or inevitability, of progressive historical change."

When Samuels asks Rice about that assessment, she disagrees: “It’s not hopefulness,” she said crisply, interrupting me. “It’s a sense of what is possible, and optimism about the strength of democratic institutions."

In her approach to the Middle East, Rice has undertaken a new initiative as Secretary of State, attempting to coordinate a campaign with the help of the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. Sidestepping those in the Administration who advocate direct military action against Iran, Samuels writes:

"The administration chose a more subtle mix of diplomatic and economic pressure, large-scale military exercises, psychological warfare, and covert operations. The bill for the covert part of this activity, which has involved funding sectarian political movements and paramilitary groups in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, is said to amount to more than $300 million. It is being paid by Saudi Arabia and other concerned Gulf states, for whom the combination of a hasty American withdrawal from Iraq and a nuclear-armed Iran means trouble."

Sources in the US and Middle East familiar with the covert side of the US effort, cited a number of recent developments for Samuels as examples of possible clandestine activity:

* The upsurge in antigovernment guerrilla activity inside Iran, including the February 14 bomb in Zahedan, the economic center of the province of Baluchistan, that killed 11 Revolutionary Guard soldiers

* The mysterious death of the Iranian scientist Ardashir Hosseinpour, who worked on uranium enrichment at the Isfahan nuclear facility

* The defection of a high-ranking Iranian general named Ali Asgari, former deputy minister of defense, previously responsible for training and supplying Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s

Aside from the covert side of the new Middle East agenda, the critical overt development relates to the renewed drive to create a Palestinian state. If Rice wants to achieve the "grand bargain" hoped for by US officials, as Samuels writes, "This is the price that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are demanding if they are to support the administration’s stance on Iraq and Iran."

The bulk of Samuels' profile covers Rice's efforts to move Israel and Palestine closer to some kind of resolution, creating a vivid account of the frustration diplomats face when trying to unravel decades of animosity and suspicion.

Though a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a fleeting prospect, Samuels contends Rice has succeeded in her goal of building a coalition of Arab allies willing to help achieve US goals in the Middle East, though doing so may have required a compromise of her own poli-philosophical ideals:

Thanks largely to circumstance, and to her talents on the public stage, Rice has succeeded where Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, pulling in opposite directions during Bush’s first term, failed. She has assembled an alliance of Arab states working to help the United States contain Iran, stabilize Iraq, and keep Syria out of Lebanon. Her success becomes even more paradoxical when one realizes that she is not a classic believer in process diplomacy—in fact, she loathes it. Rice is the product of a structuralist academic background and has a deep personal belief in the primacy of “underlying historical forces,” a conviction in direct conflict with the optics of her current role as the public face of America’s new coalition-building effort in the Middle East....

Practically, Rice is torn between her strong belief in the necessity and the inevitability of democratic change in the Middle East and the fact that America’s coalition depends in large part on the goodwill of Saudi Arabia, which insists that the United States downplay its desire for change. Rice is torn between her long-term commitment to democracy and the actual short-term results of democracy. She is trying to have things both ways, a fact that she understands, because she is not stupid. At the same time, she believes she can have things both ways, because she believes that history is on her side.

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