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Happy talk, grim reality

October 08, 2006

AFTER CIRCLING THE BAGHDAD airport for 40 minutes because of mortar and rocket fire, traveling by helicopter to the Green Zone to avoid the deadly bomb-strewn highway into the city and holding a meeting with President Jalal Talabani in darkness because the power was suddenly cut off, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a news conference Thursday to talk about all the progress being made in Iraq.

This kind of clueless happy talk in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary might produce great material for political satirists, but it's not very encouraging for those looking for signs of hope in the Middle East. Rice's recently completed six-day trip to the region, which included her sixth visit as secretary of State to Israel and the Palestinian territories, probably ranks as her least productive. She spent most of her time talking with leaders who don't trust her about issues they'd rather not discuss.

In Egypt and Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Rice met with leaders of eight moderate Arab governments whom she had hoped to persuade to join U.S. efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. Instead, they were more interested in pushing for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Bush has said the United States will not impose a settlement; Arab leaders want at least as much focus on Israel as Iran.

The next stop was the West Bank. Last year, Rice was able to broker a deal to open border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel, but they have been mostly closed since Palestinian guerrillas captured an Israeli soldier on June 25. It's critical that they be reopened soon because Palestinian crops are nearly ready for harvest, and if they can't be exported, it will result in more suffering than the territories are already enduring in the face of an economic embargo. When Rice talked about the crossings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, he was noncommittal.

Then onto Iraq. After some fruitless meetings with the Iraqi leadership, which is trying to govern a country in which political parties have devolved into armed camps at war with one another, Rice turned her attention to the comparatively prosperous and peaceful Kurdish north, which is threatening to secede in a dispute over oil. Even as she was meeting with regional President Massoud Barzani on Friday, news was breaking that a Kurdish lawmaker and his driver had been kidnapped and killed, the first legislator from the current parliament to be murdered.

No visit by a U.S. diplomat could begin to ease the discord that has wracked the region for decades. If there were a silver bullet for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict or the war in Iraq, it would have been fired long ago. As Rice says, "what is necessary is to go step by step on the ground to really improve conditions." The worry now is that every step, including by the administration, is going in the wrong direction.

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