col Waiting for the poker hand

I've been to this play before. It always starts out like the coming-out season for debutantes in Palm Beach, and it always ends around a smoky poker table at Binions casino in Las Vegas.

That is, every new secretary of state gets his or her moment on the world stage, where everyone "oohs" and "ahs" about how smart they are and what a "dream team" staff they have put together. As the first secretary of state to ever wear stiletto heels while reviewing troops, Condoleezza Rice has had a coming-out season second to none.

The savvy secretaries don't take any of this seriously. They know that eventually every secretary gets dealt a poker hand -- and you never know when it'll come or what sort of cards it'll contain: the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (Henry Kissinger), the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev (George Shultz), the fall of the Berlin Wall (James Baker), Kosovo (Madeleine Albright), Iraq (Colin Powell). And this poker hand is no-limit Texas Hold 'Em. How well you play this high-stakes hand usually determines your legacy as secretary of state.

Rice may get dealt other big hands, but there is one already waiting for her on the table. It is the four fragile democratizations unfolding in the Middle East: Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine-Israel. Whether any of these come to fruition will certainly form a crucial part of the Rice legacy.

For the last month or so, the Bush team has been doing a victory lap, taking credit for the outbreak of democracy in the Arab world. While I disagree with many Bush policies, I think the president does deserve credit for unleashing something very important in the politically moribund Arab East. Many of the necessary elements for democratization are now in place in Iraq (free and fair elections), in Lebanon (a Syrian withdrawal from Beirut), in Egypt (President Mubarak's commitment to multicandidate presidential elections) and in Gaza (an Israeli commitment to withdraw and Palestinian elections).


But while the necessary conditions may now be in place, the sufficient conditions for democratization are still not present in any of these arenas. The Iraqi election was Jan. 30 and the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis have still not agreed on a government, and the insurgency is still going strong. In Lebanon, the Cedar Revolution is now bogged down in a standoff between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian Lebanese. In Egypt, it's not clear whether the upcoming presidential elections will be free -- with anyone who wants to run able to -- or fair -- with international observers. And in Israel-Palestine, Ariel Sharon's new settlement binge near Jerusalem underscores how difficult it will be to maintain momentum there.

The common theme in all four areas is that the key parties are doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Democratization is everyone's second choice. First, the Kurds and Shiites want to consolidate their own power inside Iraq; the Lebanese opposition wants to get rid of the Syrians; the Egyptians want to get U.S. pressure off their backs; and the Israelis want to get rid of Gaza's huge Palestinian population.

In history, a lot of good has started with people doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. But you will only have self-sustaining democratization in the Middle East if people start to do the right thing for the right reasons -- if the different sects in Iraq and Lebanon really do hammer out a shared vision and set of rules for their two countries. If Egypt recognizes it can't thrive without liberalizing its economy and political institutions. If Israelis and Palestinians really do come to terms with each other's nationalism. Otherwise, you'll have constant backsliding.

Trying to make any one of these democracy projects self-sustaining -- and that is the test -- would be a career. Rice's challenge is to do all four at once. The burden is not hers alone. The parties themselves must carry the lion's share. But her responsibility is undeniable.

Does she have the toughness to deal with Ariel Sharon? She has not shown it up to now. If the Bush team lets Sharon trade Gaza for the West Bank, the whole U.S. democratization agenda in the region will be set back.

Does she have the moxie to restrain the Kurds and Shiites from overreaching in Iraq?

The steel to deal with the Syrians?

The will to move the Egyptians?


Too soon to say. But this is the early poker hand she has been dealt, and how she plays it will determine, in part, whether the Bush team has uncorked democratization in the Middle East (I hope so) or set loose a new deadlock. (I hope not.)

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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