As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Europe on Wednesday after four days of talks in the Middle East, her Boeing 757 jet passed high over Baghdad. On a cloudless day at 37,000 feet, the city seemed sparkling and calm; the U.S. military presence and the sectarian violence below could only be imagined.
The moment was an apt metaphor for Rice's latest -- and her 12th -- visit to the region in the two years she has been the nation's top diplomat.
Through much of her trip, she seemed to cruise at a very high altitude as she pitched President Bush's new plan for Iraq, tried to revive peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians and sought to organize an Arab coalition against "violent extremists" such as Iran. But her results after six stops on the ground in the Middle East did not match her lofty rhetoric.
Rice announced that she had arranged a three-way meeting to discuss the contours of a Palestinian state, sidestepping questions about the political weakness of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders who would make a deal. She found generally tepid support from Arab leaders in the region for Bush's proposed military buildup in Iraq. She shrugged off a request from the emir of Kuwait that the United States engage directly with Iran and Syria to prevent the Iraqi conflict from spilling over its borders.
‘It is not deal-making’
Even so, Rice told reporters traveling with her that, despite the day-to-day headaches and setbacks, she thinks that conditions are right now for a fundamental reordering of the Middle East.
"You aren't going to be successful as a diplomat if you don't understand the strategic context in which you are actually negotiating," she said Tuesday. "It is not deal-making. It's not. There are a set of underlying relationships, underlying balance of power, leverage on different sides, and you have to recognize when you are in a position to then, on top of that, find a solution given the underlying balance."
Under Rice's formulation, the time is not ripe to deal directly with Iran and Syria, both of which are causing problems in Iraq, because they have not indicated they are ready to change their behavior. While the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is trying to build ties to Iran, which Rice said she does not oppose, the administration is ratcheting up the pressure, sending a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. The United States has negotiated with seemingly implacable adversaries in the past -- the Soviet Union and Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic among them -- but Rice rejects those historical analogies as irrelevant.
By contrast, Rice said she thinks the opportunities for Middle East peace have suddenly turned brighter, even though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has struggled against the Hamas movement, which has day-to-day control of the Palestinian government and which remains committed to Israel's destruction. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also faces political peril from a financial scandal and lingering controversy over last summer's war between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
"A lot has happened in the Middle East in the last several years, and a lot has clarified in the Middle East," Rice told reporters traveling with her after she arrived here Thursday, on the last stop of her week-long trip, for meetings with British officials.
Rice argues that there is a constellation of forces, such as growing fear of extremist groups by "mainstream" Arabs in the wake of the Lebanon war, that now gives historical antagonists such as Saudi Arabia and Israel common strategic objectives.
"With that shift in alignment, I think you now have a chance to perhaps make progress on this issue in ways that you didn't before," Rice said.
As a result, Rice on this trip shifted six years of Bush administration policy to encourage Olmert and Abbas to begin discussing vexing "endgame" issues, such as the shape of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the claim of Palestinian refugees, as well as their descendants, of a right to return to homes in Israel that they fled or were forced to flee in 1948.
The administration of President Bill Clinton had grappled with such topics, but the Bush White House previously argued that they could not be raised until a series of incremental confidence-building measures had been addressed.
The Arab media was highly skeptical of Rice's efforts. The Arab News, a Saudi newspaper, asked the day after she left Riyadh, "To what extent is Rice just another siren, mesmerizing the Middle East with pleasing songs while dragging it onto the rocks of fresh conflict because of her own country's incompetence?"
At one point, Rice said that the difficult circumstances in the Middle East could represent opportunity. "I don't read Chinese but I am told that the Chinese character for crisis is wei-ji, which means both danger and opportunity," she said in Riyadh. "And I think that states it very well. We'll try to maximize the opportunity."
But Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, has written on the Web site http://pinyin.info, a guide to the Chinese language, that "a whole industry of pundits and therapists has grown up around this one grossly inaccurate formulation." He said the character "ji" actually means "incipient moment" or a "crucial point." Thus, he said, a wei-ji "is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry."