Grand Illusions

With Rumsfeld and Powell gone, and Cheney’s power diminished, this is Condoleezza Rice’s moment. Can she salvage America’s standing in the Middle East—and defuse the threat of a nuclear Iran? Behind the curtain in Washington and Jerusalem with the secretary of state

There will be nothing to see at Rice’s next stop, in Amman. Flight schedules are tight, so, after another roundtable and a private off-the-record dinner with the secretary of state, most of the reporters fly ahead to cover her meeting with the Quartet in Berlin. In the hope of getting closer to the content of American diplomacy in the Middle East, I fly instead to Amman, where Rice is ushered into a meeting at the headquarters of Jordanian intelligence, known as the GID.

Later, I am told that she was joined by Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi intelligence chief and the youngest surviving son of the founder of the Saudi state; Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser; Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence chief; Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed al Nahyan, national-security adviser for the United Arab Emirates; and General Mohammed Dhahabi of Jordan’s GID. The operational part of the U.S.-Arab relationship—which includes active operations in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza—is led on the American side by General Michael Hayden, the head of the CIA, but Rice has control of the larger architecture of the political-military effort. Her frequent trips to the region, her history at the NSC, and her academic background in Soviet military affairs make her quite comfortable with discussions of military strategy.

According to American and Saudi sources, Rice spoke to the gathered intelligence chiefs about diplomatic and security developments in the West Bank and Gaza. The group then discussed the infiltration of Iranian weapons into Iraq and Lebanon and the movement of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah trainers across the region. Part of Rice’s job is to help coordinate intelligence sharing between the Arab states and the U.S.-backed Palestinian security forces, the one hard asset Abbas can offer the United States and a useful check on the reported infiltration of Iranian agents and al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists into the Palestinian territories.

My one quotable meeting in Amman takes place at the Jordanian foreign ministry, located in a field of rubble off the highway on the way back to the airport. The building is oddly hot and humid, and has a labyrinthine layout, with long hallways branching off empty glassed-in courtyards. Someone explains to me that this was originally supposed to be the headquarters for the department of agriculture. The courtyards were intended to be hothouses for crops. My host is His Excellency Abdelelah al-Khatib, the foreign minister, who attended a meeting earlier that morning with Rice and King Abdullah of Jordan.

The foreign minister’s office looks like a suite at the Four Seasons, with bright abstract paintings on the walls and clay pottery displayed on shelves. Khatib himself is a middle-aged man with a reputation for speaking honestly. He wears a gray suit, blue shirt, black shoes, and wire-rimmed glasses, and has the large head of an intellectual in a newspaper cartoon.

“This region is really under severe stress because of the lack of solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he says, repeating for my benefit the message that was delivered this morning to the American visitor. I ask him about a cartoon I saw in the paper, which showed a baby in a cradle marked “United government” and Condoleezza Rice standing beside the cradle, holding a hangman’s noose. He shrugs apologetically.

I ask him what he thinks of the failed American strategy to overthrow the elected Palestinian government by force. “Well, you are a journalist,” he says, with a sigh accompanied by a friendly smile. “I am a diplomat. I read very carefully the announcement. And the announcement actually spoke of nonlethal material, if you remember,” he adds, speaking of the careful distinction the State Department made in describing the help provided to Abbas.

I ask Khatib if there is a perception that Rice speaks directly for the president in a way that Colin Powell did not. “Yes,” he answers. “The perception is that she fully represents the political will of the president.”

The foreign minister concedes that the meeting of the intelligence chiefs is essential to the security and well-being of the region. “First of all, I want to say that the sectarian rift is a very dangerous issue,” he says. “Nobody should think that they can ride this tiger. And by the way, nobody in the region is immune from this kind of activity in their own country.”

Like Kissinger, Khatib fears that if Iran were to get a nuclear bomb, other Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be forced to follow suit, and the entire Middle East would go nuclear. “We know from experience of the world community in other regions that when a race for acquiring weapons of mass destruction is opened, it’s very difficult to close. Different partners will feel the need to go in that direction, and this is not for the interest of the region,” he says. “Or the world community. Or world peace and stability.”

Presented by

David Samuels’s “In a Ruined Country,” a profile of Yasir Arafat, appeared in September 2005.

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