John Rentoul: 'Hey ho, Condi Rice has got to go!' Is that really the best they could come up with?

Cynics deride Rice's gentler image as a bid for the presidency
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The Independent Online

The Condi and Jack show is one of the more unlikely cabaret acts of global diplomacy. The Foreign Secretary went last year to Condoleezza Rice's home state of Alabama to watch a college football game and hear her reminisce about her childhood in the segregated South. The return visit has not been quite so schmaltzy - the US Secretary of State was greeted by demonstrations in Blackburn last week and invitations were withdrawn.

The protests failed the first test of effective campaigning, which is to be clear about your objectives. The only specific demand of the protesters seemed to be immediate British and American withdrawal from Iraq. In this, the anti-war movement has refined its position, which in the early days after the invasion was, "What do we want? A bloodbath." The answer today is, "Even more of a bloodbath than there is at the moment." Which does not scan any better than "Hey ho, Condi Rice has got to go", which is what they chanted on Friday.

In the absence of such clarity, the protests seemed rather rudely personal. I can understand hating Henry Kissinger, one of Rice's most famous predecessors. Although even with him there were limits. Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, once wrote an entire novel (Good as Gold) animated by a loathing of Kissinger, which was mostly expressed by describing him as a fat little [expletive deleted]. My first political memories were of America's intervention in Chile and its withdrawal from Vietnam and Cambodia, but I doubted that Kissinger's body-mass index was a sound basis for disliking him.

Rice-haters display an admirable refusal to be swayed by similarly irrelevant factors. They are not impressed by the fact that she is the first African-American woman to hold such high office. Nor by the fact that she is fluent in Russian, French, Spanish and German. Nor by her frankness about Iraq - "I know we have made tactical errors, thousands of them." Nor by the fact that she can play the piano, figure-skate and understand American football. Unfortunately, they are also steadfastly unmoved by the fact that she is the leading dove in the US administration, on the right side in the contention - even if such things are only relative - for the President's Ear.

That ought to matter. But no, she is George Bush's representative. She is the symbol of everything that is wrong with the world. There is a lot of anti-Americanism about. It is not confined to Blackburn. On the other side of the world last week, Tony Blair confronted it in a boarding school in Indonesia. Both he and Rice had to endure being serenaded with "Imagine", easily the worst thing John Lennon wrote and possibly the worst pop song ever. Much of the British media coverage of the Prime Minister's visit was wonderingly admiring of the articulacy and boldness of the teenage pupils in asking questions about Iraq.

Just as surprising, surely, was the assumption of these brainwashed teenagers that George Bush is engaged in a war against their Muslim "brothers and sisters". Whether the invasion of Iraq was wise or not, it is bizarre to believe that one of the motives was to oppress Muslims. But we are up against the forces of a global irrationalism. One pupil seemed to think that the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan was part of the war against Islam - knowing better than the overwhelming majority of the Muslims who live there, not to mention the United Nations and all the Muslim countries that supported the use of force. These children presumably know nothing of Kosovo, where US and British military force rescued a Muslim population from vicious oppression.

"You have a view of America which is not a view I share," Blair told them, once again showing his ability to find common ground where a sceptic might see a no-man's land between ideological trenches. "We have got to see how we build a bridge of understanding between the West and the Muslim world," he said. "So that ... even if we do disagree we never distrust or hate each other."

Unfortunately, Muslim extremism has allied with secular anti-Americanism to produce a powerful cocktail. For that reason, Blackburn, with its 20 per cent Muslim population, was just the right place for Condi to visit. As Francis Fukuyama says in his new book, explaining why he broke with his neoconservative friends over Iraq, America needs to adopt a humbler tone of willingness to work with other countries if it is to staunch the suspicion engendered by its overwhelming military power. And that is precisely what Rice is doing.

Some cynics deride her kinder, gentler image around the world as a bid for the presidency. Gerard Baker, the US editor of The Times, says that "humanising herself and her office" is blatant electioneering. But yesterday she repeated her position: "I really don't want to run for office. I've said it in as many ways as I know how. It is not what I want to do."

If that were not emphatic enough, one has only to consider how her liberal views on social issues would go down in the Republican primaries.

No, she is doing it because she knows she has to sell America as a force for good in the world. Last summer she made a remarkable speech in Egypt: "For 60 years, my country pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

In this, she is starkly different from Kissinger (and, indeed, from her own earlier "realism"). When the US moves from democracy-suppression to democracy-promotion, should we not take to the streets to welcome her?

But anti-Americans are determined not to believe it, convinced that the "thousands" of tactical mistakes in Iraq negate the possibility that part of the motive for deposing Saddam Hussein was to bring democracy to the Iraqi people. They ignore Rice's deference to the Europeans and her insistence on working through the UN in dealing with Iran. But Rice deserves to be defended, because almost all the forces in American politics are pressing for isolation and protectionism.

Hurrah, say the Condi-hounders of Blackburn. Yankee go home and stay there. But that would be bad for the world. It would diminish the hope of freedom for the people of Darfur, North Korea and Burma. It would erode the hope of a viable state for the Palestinians. It would make agreement on climate change less likely. And it would threaten the prospects of fairer and free trade.

Politeness apart, Blackburn should have given Condi a heroine's welcome because it matters for the world that her brand of internationalism succeeds.