Rice Discusses Mission to Gain Arab Support

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice holds a reporters' roundtable in London to discuss the outcome of her mission to persuade Arab leaders to support President Bush's new Iraq military buildup and to revive the Arab-Israeli peace talks.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is wrapping up a trip to the Middle East and Europe where she's been trying to explain to allies just what the U.S. hopes to do with Iraq. She's also made a promise to try to revive the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process.

But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, Rice doesn't seem to want to bank her reputation on that. And though she talks about Iraq, the closest she came to the country was in an airplane 30,000 feet in the air.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The view of Iraq from the air was stunning. The Tigris River winding its way through Baghdad. Ahead were the snow-covered mountains of Kurdistan. Down below, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki was complaining to journalists about comments Rice made that his government is on borrowed time.

Today she insisted she was misinterpreted. But she also heard on all of her stops on this trip a great deal of skepticism about the Malaki government and the U.S. plans to help.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: It's the nature of this struggle that the Iraqis are the ones who have to determine what kind of country they're going to be and carry that out. But the United States is going to be there to support them. I've been to Baghdad I think six times, and I'm sure I will go again. It seemed to me that it makes sense to let the Iraqis have some time to get their plans in order.

KELEMEN: So she said it wasn't the right time to go to Iraq. Timing seems to be an important part of her diplomatic strategy. The U.S. has a weaker hand than usual in the Middle East. And in one moment of candor on this trip, she argued diplomacy isn't about deal making, but knowing when the context is right.

Iran, in her view, has emerged as a great threat, not just to Iraq, but also to the region. And though one Gulf leader, Kuwait's Amir, told her to talk to Iran and also to Syria about ways to stabilize Iraq, Rice seems to think the U.S. doesn't have the leverage it needs, not on a nuclear issue or on Iraq, at least not yet.

RICE: The question really shouldn't be why aren't we willing to talk to Tehran. The question should be why won't Tehran talk to us? Because the suspension of their enrichment and reprocessing capability would give them all kinds of entree, and yet they can't quite do it. So what does that tell you about their ambitions?

KELEMEN: Her trip apparently didn't play well in the Arab media. The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia put together a package of recent articles and political cartoons, one of her standing in the rubble of the Middle East, looking lost.

A columnist in the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper raised doubts about her efforts to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process, writing, quote, "Whenever the U.S. project in Iraq becomes more difficult, the Americans remember that the Arabs have a cause that concerns them - in Palestine."

Secretary Rice says she's serious about trying get the Israelis and Palestinians together to talk about the contours of a Palestinian state, but she was a bit more circumspect when asked today whether she's ready to put her reputation on the line to make this happen.

RICE: I will do whatever I can do to try to help establish a Palestinian state. You know, I don't think about it in terms of my reputation. I know enough history to know that my reputation will be what my reputation is, so I just - and it might be different in five months, or five years, to 50 years, and so I'm simply not going to worry about that.

KELEMEN: But Rice has only a couple of years left as secretary of state and is facing what looks to be an uphill battle to get two weak leaders - Israel's Prime Minister and the Palestinian Authority president - to get very far. She's expected to meet with them in the Middle East in the first half of February.

For reporters, this trip offered a window into Rice's thinking on the Middle East. She sees it as a struggle between moderates and extremists. The turmoil in Iraq seemed far away from the palaces and meeting rooms where she met Arab leaders in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The most turbulent she had was the rough landing in London during the windstorm today. A metaphor, perhaps, of what's to come.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, London.

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