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

In the evenings, Rice meets regularly with the 10 to 15 reporters who accompany her on foreign trips. These meetings, called “roundtables,” are conducted on the record and give Rice an opportunity to engage in an intimate, conversational setting with the traveling press. At a quarter to six, the reporters gather by the elevators in the basement of the David Citadel. We are then whisked up to the 10th floor, where a conference table decorated with an American flag and bowls of red, white, and blue flowers is waiting, along with Stuart from the embassy in Tel Aviv.

While the transcripts of Rice’s roundtables, which can be found on the State Department Web site, are mostly filled with slightly less-formal versions of the administration’s public positions, occasional clues as to the secretary’s thinking do slip through. One of Rice’s most revealing recent answers came at a roundtable held on January 16 in Kuwait City. Thanks to the generosity of the al-Sabah family, which rules Kuwait and remains grateful to the United States for saving its throne from Saddam Hussein, reporters accompanying the secretary of state stay free of charge in the royal guesthouse complex. The men are accommodated in rooms covered in tan-and-green marble from floor to ceiling and enjoy a steady service of classical French cooking. (Female reporters are housed in the servants’ quarters, which are much less luxurious.) Rice’s answer came in response to a “ponderous, rainy-day” question from Neil King of The Wall Street Journal.

“You mentioned several times on this trip being a student of history, and you often recite 1948 and Dean Acheson and the Cold War and 1989,” King began, before asking if there were any moments in Arab history that had informed Rice’s thinking about the region. In response, Rice mentioned the British colonial practice of drawing national borders in a way that created the maximum amount of tribal and religious friction. She name-checked Rabin and Sadat, and then returned to one of her favorite themes: the lessons of the Cold War.

As late as 1987 or 1988, Rice said, the American policy of democratic change in Europe would have looked like a failure. What her answer suggested was that the Bush administration’s policy of encouraging democratic change in the Middle East might appear to fail for 50 years, and then might be judged to have been a farsighted success.

“You aren’t going to be successful as a diplomat if you don’t understand the strategic context in which you are actually negotiating. It is not deal making. It’s not,” she said, taking a deliberate jab at the editorial writers who have been admonishing the administration for refusing to “engage” Iran and Syria. “And again, not to analogize, but my favorite case of this is if you had tried to negotiate German unification for any period of time until 1990, you would have not been able to do it, because the underlying circumstances were not there.”

Rice enters the room for the night’s roundtable with her usual perfect posture, her walk somewhere between a march and a glide, wearing shimmery violet eyeliner to hide her fatigue. The reporters shift around in their chairs, a vestigial gesture of respect that functions as a kind of unspoken apology for the bad manners enforced on them by the ethos of the modern press corps. As she takes her place, we slide our handheld recorders down the length of the table, where they come to rest in front of the secretary of state.

Kessler, seated to her left, says that plenty of American diplomats have been down the peacemaking road in the Middle East before.

Rice nods. “Yes,” she says, “they certainly have. And let me remind you all of that.”

If nothing she says is particularly new or informative, it is hard not to be captivated by the secretary’s mastery of the improvised sign language that briefers use to add emphasis and keep their audiences awake through lengthy stretches of officialese. Rice’s hands speak with a force and eloquence that her words often lack, and that can amplify or contradict the literal meaning of her sentences.

“There is an awful lot in the road map that can provide a guide,” she says, turning her hand on its side and effecting a quick series of knifelike gestures on the table in front of her, promising swift and clear action—cutting a deal. To a follow-up question about the conditions of the road map, she notes the old view that “you had to fulfill everything in the road map before you could have discussions of the destination,” crossing her arms defensively in front of her chest to indicate that the idea she has just expressed is now seen as a form of Israeli intransigence. When she mentions the “unity government,” she holds her index fingers parallel to each other, to indicate that the government consists of two separate entities, one led by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, which we will boycott, and the other led by President Abbas, whom we will continue to talk to. At the same time, she says, the Palestinians do have “obligations, certain responsibilities.” Here she accompanies her words with the most elaborate pantomime of the night, a three-part display in which she opens her eyes wide, points with her index finger, and then jabs hard at the air three times.

With the clock winding down on the night’s roundtable, I ask Rice how her remarks in Kuwait City might apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to which there appears to be no immediate, clear solution.

“I think the more favorable side is that you have a broader base of support in the Israeli body politic for a two-state solution than you’ve ever had before,” she says. “And that is thanks in large part to Prime Minister Sharon.” The Israelis, she points out, have left Gaza.

“Now, that raised other problems,” Rice continues, “because it’s not as if Gaza has been lawful and peaceful since the Israelis withdrew, and so I understand that that raises questions about capacity in the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian institutions to actually govern.” On the other hand, Rice adds, “you also have a more democratic leadership in the Palestinian territories than you did when Yasir Arafat was there.” Here she turns her palms facedown and sweeps them across the table, as if to smooth troubled waters.

“It’s not like German unification, where, frankly, it was all going in one direction,” she says. She lowers her eyes, and then looks wistfully off into the middle distance. “The Soviet Union was collapsing. East Germany was collapsing. That was an extraordinary time.”

Presented by

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

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