Rice Sends a Warm Message in the Mideast

  • Share
  • Read Later
Condi Rice is at her best when she throws away the script, forgets the acronyms and euphemisms of diplo-speak, and uses words of one syllable. She knows it. And sometimes, when she’s piqued, she snaps out a sharp phrase that everybody understands.

For instance, on Sunday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Rice was asked about the Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s torrent of criticism of the UN investigation into the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. “What I’ve seen is, so far, a lot of criticism of the process and a lot of criticism of the investigation,” Rice asserted. “That just isn’t going to — it’s not going to cut it.”

Then, there are times when she tries to strip away the jargon and describe the way ordinary people are affected by a problem. “She wants to make a lot of these issues a little less antiseptic,” says a State Department official traveling with her.

Speaking to a Jerusalem audience of American and Israeli intellectuals and policy-makers organized by the Brookings Institution Sunday night, Rice appealed for support resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by focusing on the human toll on both sides. “ Terrorists have claimed the lives of over one thousand innocent Israelis and injured thousands of others—men and women and children who simply wanted to enjoy a pizza or catch a bus or celebrate Passover,” she said. “And the Palestinian people have suffered, too. They too have mourned the loss of innocent life. They too have been deprived of days that are normal, filled with peace and opportunity.”

Even when lambasting hostile regimes like Syria and Iran, Rice tries to add a few words of sympathy for the people of those nations. She wants people on the street to know, says an aide, that the U.S. isn’t trying to punish the entire nation for the transgressions of the leadership. That’s why Rice, speaking at an international conclave on democracy in Bahrain Saturday, departed from her usual rhetoric about Syrian support of terrorism to accuse the regime of abusing its own people. She cited Syria’s recent arrest of dissident Kamal Labwani. Afterwards, she told associates, she was deeply moved when a Syrian human rights activist came up to her, kissed her cheek and said, “Thank you for not forgetting us.”

In President Bush’s first term, Rice seemed to be one of those policy wonks with what Beltway insiders might call a “passion for anonymity.” Now, as Secretary of State, she seems to be enjoying commanding the stage—and sometimes directing the other players.

At a press conference with Rice Saturday in Jeddah, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal backed off his Sept. 22 warning in Washington that U.S. policy in Iraq was leading the country "toward disintegration” and a civil war that could engulf the region. When a reporter asked about his grim prognosis, the Saudi prince replied that he had faith that the Arab League’s efforts to host negotiations among all Iraqi factions might avert chaos. “My fears which I have expressed earlier are much more eased today than they were at the time that I expressed them,” Saud said softly.

Rice turned to the reporters with a sly gleam in her eye. “Did you have trouble hearing?” she said loudly. She turned back to Saud and asked, “More eased? Is that what you were saying?”

Apparently baffled, he ventured, “No, she was asking —.”

“No, I had trouble hearing the very end, I think,” Rice replied, shepherding him back to the point.

“More eased,” Saud replied obediently.

“Right, okay,” Rice nodded, allowing just a flicker of triumph to light her face. “Thank you.”