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Rice Weighs in on Middle East Issues, American Leadership

August 12, 2013  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered some tough words about current affairs in the Middle East during a McCloskey Speaker Series event presented in collaboration with the Aspen Strategy Group and Brookings Institution.

Egypt is “an extraordinarily difficult situation,” said Rice, who is now a professor at Stanford University. “There are no good answers for Egypt.”

The country has three harsh tasks ahead to work toward stability, she said: for the military that’s shakily in charge of Egypt to not use force, to organize a transitional process to civilian leadership as quickly as possible, and to include Islamists in the political structure. The latter point might be one that’s hard to swallow for Americans, Rice acknowledged. But Egypt’s democratic opposition forces are not very organized, while the Islamists have long been the most organized group, “so the political process has to include some level of Islamists,” she explained.

Asked by Aspen Strategy Group Director Nicholas Burns whether the United States should enter into direct talks with Iran’s newly elected president, Rice cautioned against expecting relations to change with Hassan Rouhani at the helm.

“By all means, try,” she said, “but be careful.”

Rice noted that it wasn’t for lack of trying on the United States’ part that there is no deal over Iran’s nuclear program. And while Rouhani may be different, “you don’t get to be a mullah in Iran without being a tough cookie.”

If the United States were to reach out, it should be within the context of its diplomatic allies, the P5+1, said Rice. Meanwhile, harsh sanctions should “absolutely” remain in place, to be incrementally reduced only as progress is made at the negotiating table.

Pointing to Iran’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Rice noted that Iran is a revisionist power in the Middle East and is “a problem for us, not just the Israelis.”

On the age-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rice applauded Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts, which recently resulted in the first talks between the two sides in almost three years. But Rice warned that the two-state solution is getting increasingly difficult to achieve — that each time a deal fails, the next proposal won’t be as palatable, particularly for the Palestinians. With Israeli settlements making it more difficult to draw boundaries and increased radicalization on both sides, “there are very few people younger than I am that believe in a Palestinian two-state solution,” Rice said.

Rice shared the stage with USAID Administrator Raj Shah, and the two also made their case for continuing foreign engagement, particularly with regard to humanitarian aid, despite the American budget crisis. While Shah noted the success of foreign assistance programs, such as dramatically reducing child mortality and the threat of HIV/AIDS, Rice argued that there’s a connection between security and development, and that Americans have long held the position of having a special responsibility to help others around the world. 

“Our view is the world is better off with free markets and free peoples, and if we’re not willing to work toward that, then who will do it?” she asked rhetorically.

Yet it’s not foreign relations issues that keep her up at night, said Rice, responding to a question by Burns — it’s anxiety about whether “the core of who we are is coming apart.” The K-12 education crisis, anti-immigrant sentiment, and income inequality are issues that, if not solved, erode what makes the United States special, she said.

“If we can’t fix those problems, we’re not going to lead,” Rice concluded. “And the United States will not just not lead, but we will lose the essence of who we are.”