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Bronson: Riceís Middle East Trip Underscores Bush Administrationís Decision to Become More Active in Region

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Rachel Bronson, Former Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
November 15, 2005

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Rachel Bronson, a Council senior fellow and director of its Middle East and Gulf Studies Program, says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to the Middle East—where she brokered an important deal between the Israelis and Palestinians on access from Gaza—underscores a new, more involved approach by the Bush administration to that region.

"I think the Secretary's trip was very important and marks a change in tone for the administration—a recognition that the United States really does have to be active and engaged in the region and be present," she says. Bronson, an expert on Saudi-U.S. relations, says Rice's visit was also crucial because it launched the "strategic dialogue" between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that was called for when King Abdullah, who at the time was still the crown prince, visited Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, earlier in the year.

"This reestablishes a high-level working relationship with the Saudis that was first put in motion during the reign of [Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger [in the 1970s], but then deteriorated over the decades and was effectively moribund at the time of the 9/11 attacks," says Bronson, who was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 15, 2005.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has just completed a trip to the Middle East in which she had significant talks in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and with the Palestinians. She also paid a brief visit to Jordan because of the hotel bombings there. The headlines are that she worked out an agreement between Palestinians and Israelis on crossing points in Gaza ending a stalemate which had been holding up progress since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in August. How would you evaluate Ms. Rice's trip?

I think the Secretary's trip was very important and marks a change in tone for the administration—a recognition that the United States really does have to be active and engaged in the region and be present. Secretary Rice had some challenges with the Egyptians but took important steps in Saudi Arabia and between the Palestinians and Israelis.

On Saudi Arabia, there are a number of things the United States wants. One of them is, obviously, reform. But perhaps more important—and Rice made clear how important—is a continued focus on the war on terror. Her trip to the kingdom marked the inaugural meeting in a "strategic dialogue" that President Bush and then-crown prince, now King Abdullah, called for in their April meeting in Crawford. This reestablishes a high-level working relationship with the Saudis that was first put in motion during the reign of [Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger [in the 1970s], but then deteriorated over the decades and was effectively moribund at the time of the 9/11 attacks. With this trip, the Secretary is actively reengaging the United States in the region in a dialogue. I believe this will serve the United States well.

Let's talk a bit about Saudi Arabia. After 9/11 of course, there was considerable resentment in Saudi Arabia because of the U.S. accusations—not necessarily from the government but from the population—that Saudis were largely responsible because fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudis and accusations alleged Saudi money to charities was being funneled to terrorists. Does the U.S. now have a working relationship with the Saudis on security matters?

After 9/11, the relationship certainly devolved, and the United States government didn't come out publicly to prevent it. So while the U.S. government didn't lead the charges against the kingdom, the administration didn't do anything to ease relations. The reason for this, I believe, was that the administration actually wasn't quite sure whether Saudi Arabia was with us or against us. After 2003 and the simultaneous bombings in Riyadh, when Saudis got very, very serious about cracking down on their own domestic al-Qaeda cells and really going after local terrorist groups, the working relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States improved dramatically.

The U.S. government came to appreciate the fact that the FBI was allowed to operate in the kingdom and now works shoulder-to-shoulder with the Saudis; that the Saudis began focusing their attention on domestic charities and really monitoring much of the money that leaves the kingdom. Now, there are still problems that the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia, even in the realm of money—there's a concern that some of the bigger charities, or multilateral organizations as the Saudis like to call them—like the Muslim World League and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth—are not monitored as closely as domestic charities.

There still are real tensions, but overall, the relationship is much more productive, in large part because the Saudis have taken these problems much more seriously and at the same time the United States has reviewed its own approach to the kingdom; it's a much more streamlined approach. Rather than sending over delegations every month of different groups trying to get information, we coordinate our requests in Washington to a much greater degree, which makes it easier for the Saudis to respond.

When I was in the Kingdom, what I was hearing from American officials was that the Saudis now come to us with information rather than waiting for us to bring information to them.

Just talk briefly about reforms in Saudi Arabia. Of course, Ms. Rice on her last trip to the Middle East in June gave a big speech on the necessity for democracy in the region, which is in keeping with Bush's inaugural speech. But what's happening in Saudi Arabia? There were reports about municipal elections, but I don't get the impression that they're falling all over themselves on this subject.

Saudi Arabia conducted municipal elections in February 2005 that were actually quite important. They were unprecedented in certain parts of Saudi Arabia and hadn't happened in more than forty years in other parts of the kingdom. The problem is that nothing's actually happened with these municipalities, from my understanding.

People were elected but they've never convened, so in some ways they are "Potemkin" [showpiece] elections. But I think that it's important to acknowledge that they actually did happen and there was an element of campaigning that the Saudis hadn't seen in quite a long time. That being said, this clearly wasn't the center point of Rice's message this time around and why was that the case? In part, the administration probably recognizes that there's a lot on their plate with Saudi Arabia right now and they're not operating from a position of strength.

There is also a sense that the new king—remember, King Abdullah assumed the monarchy in August of 2005—is somebody who is more committed to reforms than some of his brothers are. He's no Jeffersonian democrat and he doesn't claim to be, but he seems to recognize that there needs to be a loosening up of some of the controls in society to protect to his rule and his family's rule.

There is self-interest involved, but it's a self-interest we support. What you are seeing in Saudi Arabia is very symbolic, but importantly, three reformers who were held in jail for over year for petitioning the crown prince, now king, were released almost immediately upon the king's assumption to the throne. Under the king's watch, Saudi Arabia has been accepted into the WTO [World Trade Organization]. They just had their first meeting over the weekend and this was something that the king has been trying to shepherd through for a number of years, in large part because he believes the accountability and transparency in the private sector that is demanded by the WTO will be good for the kingdom—something the Bush administration agrees with, too. So, Secretary Rice was somewhat quiet on reform, but I think the Saudis are trying to get their house in order now that there's a new king and this king will push a reform agenda closer to the administration's hopes than perhaps was true previously.

But I also think part of the reason was the recognition that the No. 1 item on the administration's agenda with Saudi Arabia is the continued effort to fight terrorism. They want to see Saudi Arabia continue to do that domestically and I think they would like them to be more active internationally as well, and I think that will be a subject of more difficult conversations.

Let's move onto Palestine. Every Arab leader will say that there can't be any real movement toward democracy or anything else in the Middle East until the Israeli-Palestinian issue is settled. For the first time, the Bush administration seems to have had an active role in negotiating a substantive agreement in the Middle East—that is, allowing the checkpoints to be relaxed to allow Palestinians to travel from Gaza first into Egypt through the Rafah crossing and then through other crossings that will connect them to the West Bank. Why did the U.S. take such an active role? Was it due to the urgings of other countries? And how significant do you think it was for her to do it herself?

I think it was very important that the secretary was involved, and not only that she was involved but extended her trip. One of the things the Arabs states and the Europeans for that matter, have always urged is for the United States to appear active in conflict-resolution. I think U.S. activity makes it easier for local leaders to make otherwise hard decisions. That's not to say the United States has to drive some sort of resolution, but an active U.S. presence is deemed helpful. That Rice did this distinguishes herself from her predecessor [Colin Powell]. She was there, in the region; there was an opportunity to stay on; she chose to stay on and to show America's involvement and commitment.

So she's continuing to differentiate herself from her predecessor, as well as to send a message to the Arab states—since the United States wants so much from them at the moment that they are actually doing things that the Arabs want, which is to show some sort of involvement. Now on this note, the president has actually been making some very interesting decisions and shown some greater activity than he has in the past.

Over the last couple of months we've had both [Palestinian leader] Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon in the United States, each pushing his preferred version of [Palestinian militant group] Hamas' involvement in local politics. We have Palestinian elections coming up in both the West Bank and Gaza and Abu Mazen wants Israel to lift checkpoints in the West Bank so Hamas can participate. The Israelis find this request quite offensive; Hamas is an organization sworn to Israel's destruction and while Israel won't sabotage Hamas' ability to participate in Gaza, the Israeli government sees no reason to lift checkpoints and make it easier for Hamas to participate in areas that Israel controls.

Ariel Sharon came to Washington making this case, and Abu Mazen came to make his case that Hamas' participation would actually reduce its appeal in the long run. The president sided with Abu Mazen. I'm not sure this was a wise decision. I would have liked to see Hamas held to certain standards that no political figure could assume office without renouncing violence, but it does demonstrate a new level of presidential involvement and a commitment to what he sees as democracy and the willingness to get involved in the nitty-gritty of campaigning. The administration has been involved and more active than it has been over the last couple of months.

It's almost "Kissingerian." I covered Kissinger's negotiations in the Middle East and he used to love these all-night stands pressing people to make compromises.

And I think that's what it takes. And the United States has not played that role in five years.

In recent years, the United States has said it's up to the parties to take the lead if they could do it, and it's just not proven feasible.

Every new administration has said that when they came in. It was true of [former Secretary of State] James Baker; it was true of [former Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright. There's always the sense of, "Here's our number, when you're ready to make peace give us a call." And every administration over time learns that that does not serve American interests well.

We've left Iraq to the end. The Arab League has suddenly, in the last couple of months, gotten much more involved. They had a mission going to Baghdad recently and now they're going to discuss helping with reconstruction. How significant is that?

I think it actually is significant. The Arabs have been notably unhelpful in trying to get Iraq back on its feet. The Bush administration has been very frustrated with this and it's been a backroom conversation with the Bush administration saying, "We need your help," and the Arabs saying, "You didn't listen to us in the first place and look at this mess we are in, and you can stew in it."

But Arab League participation is important for two reasons. One is the Sunnis are in a very insecure position inside Iraq—and I think there is a sense that if the Arab League or Arabs can find some kind of multilateral institution to engage the Sunnis, that may help them feel that even if they're not a majority in Iraq, that perhaps because they are a majority in the region their interests can be represented.

So it's a method to try and figure out whether there's a way to engage the Sunnis and help them address some of their insecurities. But it's important for a second reason, which is the Arab states tend to operate under conditions of consensus. It's something enormously frustrating to the United States and others, but it is a tried and true pattern: It's hard for any leader to make a decision on his own. They tend to cut each other down and make them pay for independent action. Finding an international organization which gives them cover to do things they may otherwise want to do is very important. The United Nations plays this role, the Arab League always could play this role, and the WTO in some ways plays this role. These international organizations are important.

If individual countries are trying to find a way to engage and be helpful, they're going to use the Arab League as a cover to make some otherwise hard decisions. It's interesting that the Saudis have now pledged a billion dollars for Iraqi reconstruction; it's less than the administration would want, but still, they're on record for pledging it. And these are the kinds of things that will be easier for Arab states to do and take, if they can do it under some cover of an international organization. For that reason, it shows some sort of creative politics and maybe an indication that the local countries are slowly developing a willingness to participate in a way that we can engage with and hopefully steer in a productive direction. It would not serve American interests to deprecate this effort.

When you were in the Middle East recently, what was the effect of the bombings in the hotels in Jordan?

I was just in Kuwait and what is very clear is that the Kuwaitis and others in the region are quaking. There is a realization that nobody is safe; that the violence in Iraq can and will spread, and the sense in Kuwait is that it's very possible they are next. The fact that [the victims] were Muslim, the fact that they were Arabs, none of that mattered. These are hard-core terrorists who are determined to upset the status quo and that fact makes most people in the region quite nervous. There was a lot of attention paid to the bombings and a real sense of vulnerability in the region.

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