Revolutions spreading through the Middle East added timeliness and weight to the convening of three former secretaries of state by American Jewish University (AJU) on Monday evening, Feb. 28, at the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk. Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, all active authors and advocates on the international scene, joined AJU President Robert Wexler onstage to agree on just about everything, and bicker over only a few matters.
The agreement came largely over responses to the current wave of populist uprisings in the Arab world. “This is not an American story,” Albright said of the game-changing, riotous public protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Iran and Jordan. It is also going to unfold over a long period of time, she said: “There is much I admire about our media, but they are covering this like a short sports event. This is a long story.”
Powell admitted some surprise—and then again none at all—at the fall of Mubarak and the newly minted instability elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. “People have been talking about freedom for years,” he said. “It’s not as if we didn’t press them. But who could have anticipated that a young man who immolated himself would have started that?” He was referring to Mohammed Bouazizi, the university-educated, unemployed Tunisian fruit-peddler who set himself on fire in public in an act of desperation, igniting equally desperate cries for freedom through the Arab world.
“We knew that these autocratic regimes were isolated from their people,” Rice agreed, “that they weren’t delivering for their people.” But, she said, you can’t see in advance what spark might start a revolution. “What we tried to do was to say to these regimes, ‘Start reforming now.’ ” And, indeed, there was the feeling, for example, that with the elections in Egypt in 2005 some progress toward democracy was being made, but then in 2006 Mubarak took back all that he had given up.
When Wexler asked the three what kind of regime might be expected to govern a new Egypt, Albright expressed optimism: “This is a very intelligent population,” she said, predicting that a moderate Islamist government, along the lines of Turkey, would arise. “That’s where we can be helpful, she said, by providing the ‘nuts and bolts’ of governance.” This is not a time to fear the fanatics, she said, “This could be al-Qaeda’s worst nightmare. … But democracies have to deliver, to help with foreign aid, with jobs. “It is in America’s national security to help the economy in Egypt,” Albright said.
Powell pointed to the deep interests that Egypt’s military has in maintaining stability, but also control: “I think you’re going to be seeing the military governing for quite a while,” he said.
Wexler asked Rice about her 2008 trip to Tripoli to meet with Muammar el-Qaddafi, which led to the reinstatement of the dictator in international good graces. Rice expressed no regrets, even in retrospect knowing what she knows now, and said the trip was made on the condition that Qaddafi give up his weapons and offer a settlement for the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. “It is better that he is not sitting there now with his weapons,” Rice said.
On Israel, there was not much disagreement, either. “If I were Israel’s defense minister or Bibi Netanyahu,” Powell said, “I would try to determine how porous the border with Israel is.” Added Albright: “I think Israel has every reason to feel anxious now,” but she added, “in the long run, I truly believe Israel’s security is much better off with democracy than with corrupt dictatorships.”
For her part, Rice said she hopes that the Israelis will reach out to continue the peace process: “I would like to think it’s possible to push for a deal,” she said. But there is also, “a longtime problem on the Palestinian side,” because of WikiLeaks, which hurt the leading Palestinian negotiators, as well as other factors. “Israel should be doing everything that they can to support the current leadership in the West Bank,” she said. “This is not a time for inactivity.” Albright called the current situation in the West Bank a public-private partnership,” and called Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad “remarkable.”
The disagreements among former U.S. dignitaries came over Iran, as well as the foreign diplomacy of President Barack Obama.
When Albright suggested that Iran is gaining influence in the region, Rice retorted, “I think Iranians have a lot of trouble.” She said their nuclear program has isolated them, their economy is not strong, there have been splits among the clerics and, she said, “I think we shouldn’t underestimate that 70 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30.”
To Albright’s concerns over Iranian ties to Hezbollah and Hamas as well as Powell’s concern over what he sees as growing Iranian influence with respect to Iraq, Rice said, “The posture of the U.S. about what we think of Iran matters. I think it’s time to stop painting the Iranians as 10 feet tall, and talk about them as what they are.”
But it was when Wexler brought up Donald Rumsfeld’s new memoir that the disagreement over the face Obama is showing the world came into dispute between Albright and Rice. Albright said that Obama is seeing the nation as a partner among nations, which seemed to anger Rice. Repeatedly calling the U.S. an “exceptional nation,” she said Obama should see the U.S. as a leader and not just one of the pack. Albright retorted that as an immigrant herself, no one could be more proud of this country, to which Rice pointed out that as a black woman raised in Birmingham, Ala., where she was not allowed to go where whites went, she knew what America could offer. “America has to lead,” she said, “because we surely have something special to say.”
Powell interjected that the United States would be wise to seek out partnerships, and Albright said “I am now concerned that we are turning inward.”
With so much wisdom coming from the stage, Wexler’s final question sparked both introspection and humor. He asked the panel what they might do over, if they got one opportunity to do so.
Rice said she would have focused more on a comprehensive immigration bill: “I don’t know when immigrants became our enemies,” she said, sounding profoundly moderate.
Powell referred to the moment when he told the United Nations that the war in Iraq was necessary, based on what he now knows was faulty CIA intelligence. “I would ask the president to have Condi give the speech at the U.N.,” he said to laughter. “But after that, immigration.”
And Albright ended the night with her regret over work she did as ambassador to the United Nations. “I regret,” she said, “that I didn’t push harder on what was going on in Rwanda,” she said of the massive genocide that occurred there in 1994. “I can explain it,” based on what else was happening at the time, she said, “But I regret it.”