Sitting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her office recently reminded me of why I loved a professor I had in college. Like him, she is so interested and enthusiastic about her subject that the depth and breadth of her knowledge becomes contagious.
Dressed impeccably in a dark St. John's knit (yes, ladies, I know these things), Rice expounded on the world and its trouble spots like the professor she once was and desires to be again. We disagreed on only one major issue, which I shall get to in a moment.
I began with a general question. Why does she think there are so many trouble spots simultaneously challenging the United States? In addition to Iraq and Iran, there is North Korea, Venezuela and Nicaragua, where it appears Daniel Ortega may be returned to power in the Nov. 5 election.
Rice said, "We're at the beginning of a big historic transition. When I was here the last time working for President George H.W. Bush, we were at the end of 50 years of containing the Soviet threat and ultimately defeating it. And so we got to harvest the end of that. Ö This time we're at the beginning of a new, big historic transition where we're trying to lay the foundation for the ultimate victory of democracy and triumph against the ideology of hatred and the defeat of terrorism and the rogue states."
Is she confident all of this will happen, or is it wishful thinking?
"I have no doubt that it will (happen), but it certainly won't be on our watch and it may be several watches into the future."
She's right and our enemies believe we don't have the stomach for a protracted war possibly lasting decades. Rice said, "I believe we have the will to do this." But she acknowledged that, "Americans need to see progress. I don't doubt that." As the election approaches, visible lack of progress, at least in Baghdad, may be what is hurting the Republicans and weakening the national will on Iraq.
Rice thinks the Chinese are serious about restraining North Korea's nuclear program and that truck inspections along the border are more than window dressing. "The Chinese have every reason to be very worried about a North Korea nuclear program or a North Korea nuclear weapon. It causes destabilization in the region. They worry about whether other states will start thinking about going nuclear (and) that the North Koreans might traffic in dangerous materials and these can end up in the wrong hands."
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She rejects criticism that the Bush administration won't conduct one-on-one talks with North Korea. She calls it a "myth that we haven't talked directly to North Korea. Within the context of the six-party talks, (assistant secretary of state) Chris Hill has had dinner with them, just Chris and his North Korean counterpart. What we haven't done is negotiate one-on-one with them because if they get into a position where it's just an American agreement they're breaking, like the case in '94, then they don't face the pressure of a China or a Russia. The North would like nothing better than to have this be about North Korea and the United States. We are saying this is about North Korea and the region."
And what about Nicaragua's election and Daniel Ortega's possible return to power? "We'll see whether or not, in fact, Nicaragua wants to go back that way," she said. "Our goal is to make sure (the election) is free and fair."
Venezuela? "I think you'll see a lot of backlash against Venezuelan policies. We used to have very good relations with Venezuela, but it requires a president in Venezuela who respects democratic institutions Ö and who is not meddling in his neighbor's affairs."
Rice and I disagreed on the issue of a Palestinian state. I think the Palestinians want the state to obliterate Israel, the proof being the five wars fought by Arab states, terrorism and the continuing anti-Israel rhetoric from mosques and media throughout the region. According to Rice, "The great majority of the (Palestinian) people just want a better life. I just don't believe mothers want their children to grow up to be suicide bombers. I think mothers want their children to grow up to go to university. And if you can create the right conditions, that's what people are going to do."
I asked if she just thinks this, or does she know it?
"I think I know it," she said.
"Do you think you know it because you want to believe it, or do you think you know it because of conversations with (them)?"
Rice admits to having had "lots of conversations with Palestinians," but then added: "If human beings don't want a better future, don't want their children to grow up in peace and have opportunities, then none of this is going to work anyway."
Exactly right. But their definition of "peace" and "opportunities" are different from ours. We cannot transpose (or impose) our morality on those who don't share it. And the propaganda, religious teachings and historical revisionism coming from every pore of the Palestinian structure convinces me they mean it and regard the State Department view over several administrations as self-delusional.