Published on Sunday, April 2, 2006 by the Guardian/UK
Beware, Jack, There's Steel in Her Heart
Once more there is talk of WMDs and regime change. Once again Britain is embroiled. But this US Secretary of State is clearly no dove
by Mary Riddell
Phase two of the Jack and Condi lifeswap looked like a slightly awkward fifth-form French exchange trip. It could have been a lot worse, obviously. Imagine Juventus beating Arsenal 2-0 in the Champions League this week, and you get an idea of how the second leg of a fixture can unravel. Hecklers apart, the Foreign Secretary will be telling himself that Dr Rice's Blackburn odyssey passed off pretty well.
From the sidelines, the say-hi-to-my-folks visit resembled an excerpt from Meet The Parents, the romantic comedy of oddly assorted families that George W. Bush once screened at Camp David for the Blairs. Or its sequel, Meet the Fockers, another presidential pick. Naturally, the Straw and Rice love-in, rooted in politics and football, is purely professional. It would be fair, however, to think Straw a little infatuated, both by the US Secretary of State and her back story.
'She is terrific,' he told me soon after he got back from visiting her birthplace, Birmingham, Alabama. Suggestions that Straw had to be persuaded to make the trip are mad. He would have roller-bladed down Highway 31 in a Homer Simpson costume to get there, and who would blame him?
Dr Rice arrived in a 21-car motorcade for her first homecoming since childhood. She showed her guest the streets her father patrolled against the Ku Klux Klan and the church where her friend was burnt to death in a racist attack. The picture she revealed was the dream of the New American Century: the vision of a bad world redeemed. It was, as Straw suggested to me afterwards, a tough act to follow. The council maisonettes of Essex, where he grew up, seemed not quite to cut it.
Multi-racial Blackburn, his constituency, looked a better bet for a visit bridging the tricky gap between diplomatic bilateral and matey sleepover. Condi, who famously never eats, had taken Jack to her Aunt Connie's for dinner. A down-home supper round the Straw kitchen table was considered but rejected as too cramped.
Few expected so many British protesters to treat the woman who may become the 44th President of the United States as if she were General Pinochet in Ferragamo heels. In Birmingham, she and Straw had walked from church holding the hands of little girls wearing lace-trimmed ankle socks. In Blackburn, a mosque shut its doors to Condi, and pupils picketed a school she visited.
Demonstrations are fine; banning is not. Condi's soulmate, George W, has trouble with civilised dialogue. The Middle East, and the world, are poorer for it. Dr Rice is an unemotional woman who failed to cry at her mother's funeral, explaining that they would meet again in heaven. I imagine, though, that she would take rejection personally. Once she was barred for the shade of her skin; now she is excluded for the color of her policies.
Despite her extraordinary rise to power, and her charisma, many people do not warm to Condi. Her velvet hawkishness and adjustable beliefs scare liberals. Leap-frogging white men to top jobs has not endeared her to her own constituency. The African-American film director, Spike Lee, last week urged black people to shun her over the administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina. Others have made similar criticisms. New Orleans drowned, and where was Condi? Buying enough New York shoes to kit out a centipede, and watching Spamalot on Broadway.
The Muslims who banned her from their mosque have every reason to be affronted by her Middle East policy, but if moderate believers cannot show tolerance, what is religion for? The problem in Blackburn, and elsewhere in Britain and the world, was not churlishness, though, but the fact that rage about the past blinds people to the future.
Rice's hecklers rallied on a stop-the-war prospectus. You may - should - weep for the dead. You can call for troops to leave, but you cannot stop the Iraq conflict, any more than you can halt fate or time. The attack was headed for nemesis before the first US missile hit Baghdad, and the only frail hope now is to halt the slide to civil meltdown. Yet the war is always being unfought, in neocon revisionism as on the streets of Blackburn.
That means hardly anyone is looking ahead to the next great threat. Rice flew into Liverpool from Berlin, where she and Straw, along with four other foreign ministers, publicly urged Iran to freeze nuclear enrichment. On the same day, Tehran rejected a 30-day deadline set by the UN to halt its program.
President Ahmadinejad will not back down, just when science and American failure in Iraq equip him to extend his political and diplomatic power across west Asia. The US, appalled at such a vision, will never let him have the bomb. Logic dictates that Bush, or a successor who may be Dr. Rice, has neither the resources nor the folly to embark on another conflict. But US airpower and sea-power is under-stretched, and rationality has never been the hallmark of the war on terror.
On the night Condi began her tour, I sat on a Chatham House panel discussing whether US military action against Iran is hype or a possibility. Hardly anyone in an audience of several hundred thought the threat outlandish. Already the quadrille that preceded the Iraq war is being danced again. Exiles in Washington whisper of a regime ripe for change and, quite wrongly, of a people poised to garland western liberators. The UN moves towards possible sanctions: The threat of WMD hangs in the air.
Once again, Britain is embroiled. Long ago, when Iran was a minor issue, Straw's old best friend, Colin Powell, handed the problem over to Britain, France and Germany. His view was that Europe would fail, and he was right. Powell's successor could be forgiven for thinking, as she negotiated Iranian intransigence and Blackburn puddles, that there are some things her buddy Jack could not organise, even in a brewery.
So now it's over to her. Only the optimistic would detect an inner dove in Condi Rice. The US policy on non-proliferation is riven by hypocrisy, but no one except a fool would be happy if a President who thinks Israel should be wiped off the map were to acquire nuclear weapons. Unless one side blinks, or diplomacy prevails, there are two likely outcomes. Either Iran gets the bomb, or the US strikes first. Of these hideous choices, the second is the greater threat to world stability.
As the stakes rise, Jack Straw has concerns beyond whether Condi will wear her Blackburn Rovers strip with pride. Though they did not seem to notice, the protesters who heckled her have bigger worries too. It's not about getting Dr. Rice miraculously to end this war. It's about stopping her embarking on the next one.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006