The message Rice will bring, and hear, in her Mideast trip

The secretary of State will press for democratic reform, amid rising unrest in region.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to the Middle East Friday with the region's political and economic reform her focus, but a promising spring is giving way to what threatens to be a torpid summer for democracy's advance.

Some see Secretary Rice's visit as coming none too soon. March's optimism on Lebanon has given way to postelection fears of rising factionalism. Egypt has openly rebuked reformist forces, and tensions have risen as Israel moves toward disengagement from Gaza.

"We can't have episodic interest in the Middle East," says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She praises President Bush for frank rhetoric on Arab world freedom but prods the administration to be more active in promoting pro-democracy forces, and she adds that if anything, she would have "liked to see [Rice's trip] happen a little sooner."

The itinerary

Rice is scheduled to visit Jerusalem, Ramallah in the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, where she is expected to give a speech on freedom and democratic reform. The speech's intent of setting forth a liberty agenda for US policy in the region mirrors the secretary's well-received intervention in Paris in February. In that speech, Rice laid out America's aspirations in a second Bush term for revitalizing transatlantic relations. It set the stage for Mr. Bush's visit and for improving relations with European allies.

Rice hopes to have the same touch in the Middle East, though conditions are probably more daunting, with skepticism over America's pro-democracy intentions high because of Iraq, and with many reformers squeamish about a too-close association with the United States.

Before taking up the region's democratization overtly, Rice will meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The secretary of State's engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian process is important because for many Arabs the conflict remains the key to unlocking reform pressures in the region.

With an eye on Israel's planned late-August pullout from Gaza, Rice will press Palestinians for more confidence-building security measures and Israelis to take further steps to ease Palestinian living conditions. She will also seek to convince Palestinians that the US sees what State Department spokesman Sean McCormack calls a "post-Gaza phase" to the peace process.

Her meetings will also precede a summit set for Tuesday between Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Rice will carry the banner of democratization to friendly regimes that have recently come under direct criticism from Bush. Still, this does not mean that the administration has been under any illusions that Arab political reform would be swift and easy, some analysts say.

"This is not [Eastern] Europe in 1989, and no one in the US government holds that view," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "This will be the work of decades, and the White House knows that. But on the other hand, they know they can do things to keep it going."

Rice and the administration can do different things publicly and privately, Mr. Clawson says: such as keeping up Bush's pro-democracy rhetoric in public while pressing government officials in private for specifics like more liberal elections laws.

Suspect in the region

Clovis Maksoud, a former Arab League diplomat now at American University in Washington, says the US focus on freedom and democracy is suspect to many in the region because the action that was supposed to spawn regional reform - regime change in Iraq - is widely viewed as illegitimate and resulting in chaos. At the same time, he says, events in Lebanon are leading to new fears of a mushrooming sectarianism rather than democracy's bloom.

For such reasons, he says US rhetoric cuts two ways: "It is welcome because it does put pressure on the regimes, but at the same time it complicates life for the reformers because it associates them with what looks like a project of the West."

In their report for a recent Council on Foreign Relations task force on Arab reform, Ms. Albright and former Republican Rep. Vin Weber acknowledge these hurdles for US involvement. As a result, they encourage the administration to work more through independent pro-reform groups in the region. They also say the US should not shy away from working with nonviolent Islamist political organizations, and should place more emphasis on education reform and public diplomacy - efforts to improve America's image in the Arab world.

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