There are ever so many reasons to regret, even to deplore, what Condoleezza Rice did in the Middle East, but there are those of us who yield, however apologetically, to the temptation to say: Never mind! Never mind protocol, tradition, stability, disputational refinements. Just take pleasure in the raw sight.
Here is a . . . black! . . . woman! . . . appearing in Saudi Arabia and saying to the princes of the country, as to the strongman of Egypt, that very specific reforms are in order. To begin with, said this slim U.S. Phi Bete occupying the second most august rank in the republic, Saudi Arabia should extend the vote to women. Another thing: Why are you people so poor? There are 22 nations in the Mideast cluster and their GDP, combined, is less than Spain’s?
Do I sound different from previous U.S. commentators arriving on the scene? Well as a matter of fact I do, because the points I am stressing are different from those America has traditionally stressed. I am here to talk not about stability, but about democracy. Self-rule. To self-rule you have to have objective criteria by which it is achieved. You have to have opposition parties. And you have to release from jail people who are there merely because they opposed the ruling government.
This is tirade talk in places like Riyadh and Cairo. The defense mechanisms of the incumbents come quickly to mind. The first is, “Lady, please go home and let us tend to our own affairs.” The second is, “Lady, what about the Negro situation in the U.S.?” The third: “How can you affect to be interested in justice and self-rule when you so arrantly ignore what’s been going on for 50 years in Israel? How can you have self-rule in Israel when Arabs are denied the vote? Why are you not concerned with Palestinian claims in the West Bank?”
To this last, Secretary Rice had a simple answer: “I am concerned, and as recently as yesterday I pressed that concern in conversations with Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas.”
In the matter of Saudi Arabia and Egypt there is the problem of national pride. Now national pride has a way of anthropomorphizing the nation–which becomes an individual. There is always the tendency for the tyrant to think of himself as embodying the country. This is slightly easier to bring off when dealing with royalty. Blood lines have a beguiling authority not conferrable by votes of the city council. It is just plain harder to tell Prince Faisal that he has to yield power, than to say it to President Mubarak, because he was of humble birth. But a funny thing accordingly happens to longtime rulers: their blood gradually turns blue. Hosni Mubarak was just a plain general in 1975. Now he is effectively thought of as a king. As such, it is less expected that the sovereign will yield divine attributes, as, for instance, political invulnerability.
Egyptians who opposed Ms. Rice did so on several grounds. One, that Egypt is properly mistress of her own affairs. A second, that the true opposition party had been ignored because Mubarak had outlawed it, and therefore Ms. Rice was not even talking to the relevant people. And then of course a list of U.S. delinquencies at Guantanamo Bay, at Abu Ghraib, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq. These exposures are differently dealt with. If indeed our purpose in entering Iraq was to secure the oil fields, back up Israeli interests, and gratify the appetite of President Bush for foreign adventure, then we are left speechless in any exchange that requires honest talk.
But we are not speechless in these matters, though it is difficult to communicate to a tribunal of non-Americans that Abu Ghraib pains the U.S. more than it does others because our pride is directly involved and because we cherish the position that such behavior as was engaged in is un-American in the first degree.
Those disputes will go on, and people who wish to retain power will find political niceties on which to base their case for staying in power. But hard arguments have a place. There is this difference between Saudi Arabia and Egypt: the Saudis are a wealthy nation, Egypt is poor. There is another difference, which is that we give the Egyptians every year, and have done so for decades, about three billion dollars. That has been a quiet emollient designed to encourage coexistence following the Israeli-Egyptian wars. Those who accept $3 billion in yearly benefactions will have to put up with an occasional lecture, and Condoleezza Rice put her heart into it, and ours.