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First foray abroad for Rice in new role as top diplomat

Condoleezza Rice meets with reporters at the State Department
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks to reporters at the State Department on Tuesday.  Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file
/ Source: NBC News

Condoleezza Rice, the new secretary of state, sets out on her first trip overseas Thursday as the Bush administration’s top diplomat.   

Her stops in Europe and the Middle East appear designed to forge common ground with European countries and to capitalize on progress being made between Israelis and Palestinians toward renewing peace efforts.

Rice is scheduled to visit 10 nations on her week-long tour including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Belgium, Turkey, Israel, and the West Bank. While in Rome, she will also stop at the Vatican where officials expect she will meet with senior officials, though it is unlikely she will visit the hospitalized pope.

Rice, who was best known as an expert on the former Soviet Union, is not scheduled to go to Russia on this trip, though Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is flying to Ankara to meet with her over the weekend, according to officials.

Iraq top of agenda
State Department officials say while Iraq will figure prominently in Rice’s discussions in European capitals, she has many other issues on her agenda.   

Rice, for her part, said she wants to press the president’s agenda to spread freedom and democracy. In an interview with reporters from two wire services on Tuesday, she said she hopes the United States and Europe will “begin to further unite around a common agenda for the next several years, one that is firmly rooted in our values, our shared values.”    

She said the United States and Europe face shared challenges in combating terrorism and nuclear proliferation, but also have “historic opportunities” to take advantage of in order “to build a different kind of Middle East.”

Rice hopes to make her mark during her travels, notably making a major policy speech in Paris, the European capital with arguably the most frayed relations with Washington over the war in Iraq. In her speech she says she will make the “argument that we are looking at a time of opportunity” with the trans-Atlantic alliance.

In addition, Rice is laying the groundwork for the president’s upcoming trip to Europe later in February, as well as multinational gatherings such as a Group of Eight ministers meeting with the Arab League.

Moving beyond Iraq
According to Rice, the United States and Europe should be past their differences over the start of the war in Iraq, particularly now that political progress has been made there.

“I would hope that we’re all at the point that we want a success strategy in Iraq, a strategy that is going to leave an Iraq that is stable and on the path to democracy,” she said during her interview this week.

During her travels, Rice said she will not talk about exit strategies from Iraq with European leaders, but rather, “what we can do now to, as quickly as possible, make the Iraqis self-sufficient, but to also give them the support that they need to build a stable and democratic Iraq.”     

While Rice said she doesn’t expect “great changes in what people are willing to do,” she noted contributions to bolster Iraqi security forces being made by nations such as Germany. While in Poland, she will join the chorus of U.S. officials thanking that nation for its contributions to the multinational force in Iraq.

Likewise, in Turkey, the issue of Iraq is also likely to be front and center, with Turkish concerns over the empowerment of Kurds in northern Iraq, on Turkey’s border.

Commitment to Mideast peace process
In addition to the war in Iraq, the peace process in the Middle East will also be at the forefront of Rice’s agenda. She will visit with senior leaders in both Israel and the West Bank on her trip, hoping to take advantage of renewed coordination between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as efforts to improve security by new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Bush pledged $350 million in aid to the Palestinians during his State of the Union address Wednesday to help bolster security and economic development.

Bush’s pledge is meant to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the peace process and support for Abbas, the newly elected Palestinian leader and replacement for the Yasser Arafat, who was viewed by the United States and Israel as an obstacle to peace.

Although Israeli officials have also requested U.S. assistance in defraying some costs of resettling Gaza and some West Bank settlers, a senior State Department official does not expect Rice to make any such financial commitments on this trip.

The secretary of state’s meetings in the region will come on the eve of a summit between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will host in another effort to revive the U.S. backed “road map” to peace.

Rice’s public comments on Middle East peace prospects have been noticeably optimistic, with her telling State Department employees that a two-state solution is “in our grasp,” but also noting there is a lot of work to do to achieve that goal.   

As one State Department official noted, Rice is well aware of the potential for pitfalls on the road toward peace and is of the mind “don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

Further challenges with Russia and Europe
In addition to her ambitious Middle East agenda, Rice will discuss a summit between Bush and President Putin with her Russian counterpart.   

According to a senior State Department official, Rice will not shrink from discussing other difficult issues — such as Russian democratization and concerns over what the U.S. perceives as steps away from democracy — with Foreign Minister Lavrov.

While in Europe, Rice will also meet with leaders of European institutions including the European Union and NATO.    

Thorny issues which the U.S. and European nations do not see eye to eye on — such as a China arms embargo and Iran — promise to loom large in some meetings.  

Rice told wire reporters that Washington is open to discussions with the Europeans on E.U. desires to be able to sell weapons to China, but cautioned that lifting an arms embargo sends the wrong signal on human rights.

Regarding Iran, European nations are hoping to involve Washington in talks on the country’s nuclear program, in order to add weight to the European bargaining position.   

The United States continues to resist taking direct part in any deals with Iran, with U.S. officials noting that Iran not only knows what it need to do to comply with its international nuclear commitments but has failed to abide by deals in the past.    

Rice summed up the U.S. view: “We’ve been in close coordination with the Europeans. We’ve made clear that we hope for the best. But the Iranians have not demonstrated over time that they’ve been doing well on living up to their international obligations. We’ll see.”