Condi Sails Forth

Condoleezza Rice left on her first trip as US secretary of State Thursday, and her itinerary (Europe, Turkey, Israel, the West Bank, and back to Europe) signals a historic opportunity for American diplomacy.

Yes, there's the much-talked-about mission to repair frayed ties with Paris and Berlin, and that foundation work is critical. But her trip can also advance a specific agenda: the promotion of peace and democracy in the Middle East.

If they can get their allied groove back, the US and Europe can work more effectively together in the region. But "together" shouldn't mean duplicating efforts - a problem with overlapping Middle East initiatives launched by both sides in the past decade.

Europe and the US have different strengths in the Middle East, and coordinated effectively, these strengths can complement each other.

Generally, the Europeans also enjoy a credibility the US lacks, mostly because Arabs believe Europe views the Palestinian-Israeli conflict more fairly. The Europeans have strong economic, trade, and cultural ties to the region, and a low-key style. As democracy promoters, they would have respect, but not necessarily leverage, which is why they want, for example, the US involved in their negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

Washington has used its military strength to topple a hated dictator. But democracy through force has not played well in the Arab street. Many Arabs think the US wants to protect an oil source by dominating the Middle East and establishing a long-term presence in Iraq - a double sin next to its support for Israel.

Palestinian statehood would do much to correct this image. But only Washington has the leverage to bring Israel to a deal. Secretary Rice gave a hint of that this week when she said Israel must recognize that a Palestinian state needs to be contiguous - that is, have enough land to function.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, is organizing an international meeting in March to deal with Palestinian issues. And now that Iraqis have voted, the European Union's foreign policy chief says the EU can more generously assist a freely elected Iraqi government (as opposed to a US-installed one).

Improving transatlantic relations and promoting democracy in the Middle East can go hand-in-hand. It's Secretary Rice's challenge to concretely connect these mutually reinforcing aims.

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