The great sharpening

Tell me your metaphor, I'll tell you what kind of third-rate mind you are. Condoleeza Rice's new talking point is that the Middle East is going through a "great sharpening" of differences between the voices of extremism and the voices of moderation. Except that her moderates are people like the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian regimes and hapless clientelist buffoons like Fouad Seniora of Lebanon and Abu Mazen of Palestine. She says, don't pay attention to all the violence and "day-to-day" news. There's a wider change at hand that's much more important than that. And it won't be done anytime soon. So basically her argument is that the Bush administration doesn't need to be held accountable for its disastrous Middle East policy because in fact it has a master plan and in 20 years everything will come out fine and dandy, you just wait.

Extended quotes from recent interviews with Rice after the jump -- don't miss the special goodness from Fox News at the end.


To the New York Times:

SECRETARY RICE: I think we can go right to questions. I might just make one point, which is that I think that this summer in the Middle East with the events in Lebanon actually sharpened, in some ways, what really is going on in the Middle East, the kind of sharpening between extremist forces and moderate forces. And what will be interesting and important is how that plays out over the next, now, probably several years. But on the one side, clearly, the moderate Arab states, Saudi, Egypt, Jordan, the weak but democratizing moderates in Iraq, Lebanon – and by that, I mean Maliki, Siniora, Abu Mazen in the Palestinian Territories; and then on the other side, Hezbollah, Hamas, and really supported by Iranian influence and sort of Syrian transit.

I think it really did lead to a kind of sharpening of this contradiction, if you will, between the extremist forces and the moderate forces and I think that’s going to play out in very interesting ways over the next several years. But I just wanted to make that point.
To the New York Post:

I would just like to say that on probably the issue that’s been on everybody’s mind, the Middle East, and what’s going on there, with this summer and events in Lebanon really helped to clarify what the struggle is really about. You really do have a struggle between extremism and moderation that came out very strongly, I think, with the events in Lebanon, and with on the one side Hezbollah and Hamas and the Palestinian territories backed by Iran with the kind of sidekick of Syria, and then on the other hand moderate Arab states and democratizing, relatively weak moderate forces but moderate forces nonetheless like Maliki in the Iraqi Government, Siniora in the Lebanese Government and Mahmoud Abbas in the territories. And it probably brought into sharper relief that there isn’t really a gray area here but a sharpening of extremism versus moderation
To the Wall Street Journal (her people, so she goes on at length):

SECRETARY RICE: Well, thanks. Let me just say two or three words and then we’ll just open up. I’m always quite aware that academics can go on in 50-minute slots about things that nobody actually wanted to hear, so I tried to avoid doing so. But I do think I’d like to just make a couple of points that this is a very challenging time in international politics and I see it as a time when we’re going through a big historic transformation. And so I am probably less concerned on a day-to-day basis by the turbulence that we see and I think there’s a tendency – present company excepted of course – in reporting to report the turbulence on a daily if not hourly basis. And when you’re in the midst of a big historic transformation you’re going to have a lot of turbulence. And so I think the important thing is to try to understand the underlying trends that are emerging and to be concerned about whether or not those trends are moving in the right direction, not what is happening on any given day.

In the Middle East, I think those trends are moving in the right direction but I think that we got a very big wakeup call in the summer with the war in Lebanon because in a way that it had not really been clarified before the Middle East with all of its historic animosities and so forth, I think had to confront its modern – its current environment, which is one in which extremism on one side and moderation on the other came into pretty sharp relief. And that has been very clearly recognized now, I believe, by the moderate Arab states – the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians – by moderates in the kind of fledgling democracies that are there, whether it be Iraq or Lebanon or even the Palestinian territories, and the supporter, the financier, the inspiration for those extremist forces like Hezbollah and Hamas, I think is now clearly in everybody’s mind Tehran, and that has given a kind of clarity to what the challenge is from Iran, not just on the nuclear side, not just on the internal politics side, but literally on Iran’s ambitions for the region as a whole.

So that means that I think the next several months, leading probably into several years, will be trying to find a way to rally moderate forces on behalf of emerging democratic moderate forces in the region to withstand what I think is a now quite substantial push against them by extremists and by Iranian-led extremism.

That will take some time. That will take some thought to what kinds of institutional responses there need to be. It will take understanding almost everything that we’re looking at with Iran in that context. But most importantly, it’s going to take some real effort at strengthening those moderate democratizing forces in Iraq, in Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories.

I cite the time factor here because I don’t think that this is a battle, if you will, or a struggle that’s going to be won on George W. Bush’s watch. I think the framework can be laid, but I think the struggle is not going to be won on his watch. Now, that is not to by any means diminish the central struggle in the war on terror against al-Qaida and their progeny, but it is another more geostrategic element that for the first time I think puts a state sponsor of terror in a very key position geostrategically. Terrorist groups without state sponsors are obviously extremely dangerous and can do great damage, as we saw with al-Qaida. Terrorists who are the arms and legs and kind of tentacles of a state with considerable assets at its disposal has the potential to – have the potential to change the kind of geostrategic picture. And I think we’re dealing with both simultaneously.

So with that opening, let me just ask what’s on your mind. I just want to say this personally. When I was in government the last time, I was here for the end of a great transformation, the end of the Cold War and all the work that had been done for almost 50 years to solidify democracy and resist communism and it ultimately weakened communism to a point that it collapsed of its own weight in Europe with a lot of pressure from the outside but ultimately just collapsed from within. So I guess for having been around to enjoy that, I get to be around at the beginning of another great historic transformation and it’s considerably harder, the beginning than the end.
Of course, not all of the media is buying up. Sean Hannity's Fox News has much more important, hard-hitting questions:

QUESTION: First, joining us on our newsmaker line, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is back with us. How are you?

SECRETARY RICE: I'm fine, Sean. How are you?

QUESTION: All right. I gotta – but I don't want to talk politics yet. Hang on, I'll get to that, or issues involving the importance of life and death. I had no idea -- I knew you got up every day and you worked out. I had no idea until I saw you on 60 Minutes you liked Led Zeppelin.

SECRETARY RICE: Yeah, I do.

QUESTION: What do you listen to, Stairway to Heaven? Is there --

SECRETARY RICE: Actually, I listen to just about anything Led Zeppelin's done. And I love Cream, too. I've got very eclectic taste in music, Sean. What can I say?

QUESTION: And you're a concert pianist. And I saw that you had your band recital as the show was going on. You're terrific on the piano.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, thank you. I appreciate it. I've been at it a long time, since I was about three-and-a-half.

QUESTION: Yeah. You know, I've got to tell you, I don’t know a lot about your life story and I know that you have outside interests and it's very therapeutic obviously for you. Another passion of yours, of course, is football.

SECRETARY RICE: Right.

QUESTION: But your childhood really got to me, watching Saturday night, because you lost a friend when you were growing up in the bombing of a church in Birmingham.

SECRETARY RICE: I did, Denise McNair. Birmingham had a very small kind of middle class black community. Everybody's parents taught together, and we went to church together, and the kids played together. And Denise's father was a – the photographer in the community, and so he photographed everybody's weddings and birthday parties. And Denise went to kindergarten -- one of my prize pictures is my dad handing Denise her kindergarten graduation diploma. So it was indeed a very sad day when she died.

QUESTION: You know, it's funny, the Latin word for education is educre, to bring forth and deliver with.

SECRETARY RICE: Right.

QUESTION: And what's fascinating about that is it's sort of -- it's predicated on a belief system that God creates you and he sort of designs you and creates you into the person that you're to be. I almost got the feeling watching that piece on Sunday night that this is your destiny, that you dealt with terrorism as a very young girl and in a sense it sort of shaped you to become this person with a very strong backbone to stand up against it now because you dealt with it as a child.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I do believe that if you have been through what I called "homegrown terrorism," you know if you've seen what it means to have a community rocked like that by terrorism, you know that there isn't any way to negotiate with people like that. You know that there really is good and evil. You know that these things are black and white.

And you know, there used to be a thought that well, the terrorists had this reason or that reason. There's no reason for destroying innocent life. And I think that probably comes more personally to me.

For she is the Great Sharpener.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.