In Aspen, Rice, Albright map out the world’s challenges
ASPEN – Pakistan has all the ingredients of a diplomatic “migraine” for America while the unstable situation in Iran actually could present an opportunity for improvement in the next few years, two former U.S. Secretaries of State told an Aspen audience Friday.
Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice provided lightning-quick assessments of top diplomatic challenges to about 750 people at a presentation hosted by the Aspen Institute. Albright became the first female Secretary of State when she was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997; Rice served as national security adviser to President George Bush and then was appointed Secretary of State in 2005.
Both women pointedly said they would not critique President Barack Obama’s handling of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or other diplomatic issues, but they mapped out the current state of the world.
Albright identified Pakistan as the most complicated challenge in U.S. foreign policy. “Pakistan has everything that would give you an international migraine,” she said. “It has nuclear weapons, terrorism, poverty, extremism, a weak government and they’re in a bad location.”
She said she was pleased that the Aspen Strategy Group, a who’s who of past and present diplomats hosted by the Institute, will focus on the Middle East in the next few days. Both former Secretaries of State are attending that closed-door strategy session.
While Albright and Rice expressed admiration for each other throughout the 90-minute discussion, Albright, a Democrat, made a passing comment that it might be best they didn’t discuss Iraq. Rice, a Republican, wanted to make a point.
“Let me say a word about Iraq,” Rice said. “This is a country that was run by a homicidal maniac who sought weapons of mass destruction and in fact used them against his own people and his neighbors, and who had sanctions or had resolutions against him by the international community.
“Now you can agree or disagree about the decision to go to war in Iraq, but the decision was made because the view was that you could not, in a Middle East that needed to change and was changing, continue to deal with the threat of Saddam Hussein.”
She said it’s too premature to make judgments about the Iraq war. It’s still to be determined if Iraq will become the first true Arab democracy in the Middle East, she said.
Rice was also optimistic that the U.S. approach to Iran could prove fruitful. The country is feeling the “pinch” of U.S.-led economic sanctions because its economy wasn’t strong to begin with, she said. She also said domestic protests against the Iranian government a year ago June “change the equation” in dealing with the country.
“I am not suggesting the Iranian regime is going to come down tomorrow,” Rice said, “but any sense of legitimacy for that regime is gone.”
Current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton correctly assessed the government there as a dictatorship now, Rice said.
“The clerics are at each others throats. Watch out when the children of the revolution suddenly get consumed by the revolution. … This is a revolution that’s turned on itself and it’s doing what revolutions do when they come to their end. It’s using group force to try to put off the inevitable. I don’t know if it’s a year from now or five years from now or seven years from now, but I think the Iranian regime is probably done,” Rice concluded.
Both Rice and Albright said they would support negotiating with Iran to try to prevent the country from pursuing nuclear weapon capability. Both also said they would make sure they have “big sticks” on their side while pursuing those talks.
The women entertained the audience as well as outlined heavy-duty diplomatic problems. Rice discussed her time in Aspen as a music student; Albright displayed her skills as a master storyteller with a handful of funny anecdotes. They outlined their greatest successes and shortcomings while serving as the top U.S. diplomat, and – on prompting from moderator R. Nicholas Burns – they assessed America’s ability to remain a superpower.
Albright said problems seem daunting right now: dealing with terrorism without creating more terrorists; how to deal with a “broken” nuclear non-proliferation system; how to deal with the growing gap between the rich and the poor; food security issues; and now the financial crisis.
“Just listing them makes you realize no matter how powerful the United States is, we cannot deal with those issues alone,” Albright said.
Therefore, she said, the next phase will be recognizing that other countries have a global responsibility with the U.S. “I don’t think it detracts from our power. The question is how we do it,” she said.
Rice was more emphatic that China isn’t replacing America as a world power.
“As much as China has done, and it is remarkable, we tend to overstate the kind of straight-line projection going forward,” Rice said. “The Chinese leadership realizes it still has an awful lot of work to do at home. This is still a very poor country. It’s a country that’s feeling a lot of strain from the rapid economic and social development that is taking place there within a pretty rigid political system.”
She said a country that desperately tries to control the information shared internally on the Internet cannot truly be poised to be an economic leader.
“I don’t see China as an overall competitor for American, whatever you wish to call it, influence, some people would say dominance,” Rice said.
She senses a greater challenge to U.S. power from internal breakdowns, like the “miserable failure” of the primary education system, particularly for poor kids.
“Americans have to believe that we’re special or we will not take on the responsibilities of leadership,” Rice said. “We are not just any other country.”
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Max Weintraub has been senior curator at the Aspen Art Museum since January 2019.