WASHINGTON – Through luck, good timing and persistence, the Bush administration finds itself swept up in the winds of change in the Middle East and relieved that two years of chilly relations with Europe seem to be in the past.
Should the successes continue, much of the credit may go to Condoleezza Rice (search). The blame, too, for a secretary of state on the job for just more than five weeks, if the optimism fades.
Since becoming President Bush's chief diplomat, Rice has helped guide the Israelis and Palestinians closer to the peace table, apparently won democratic concessions from an entrenched autocracy in Egypt and made up with the French over Iraq.
"Spreading freedom's blessings is the calling of our time. And when freedom and democracy take root in the Middle East, America and the world will be safer and more peaceful," Bush said in his weekend radio address.
Iraqis braved explosions and threats to vote in elections on Jan. 30, the first meaningful balloting of their lives. In Syria, President Bashar Assad (search) announced on Saturday a two-stage pullback, though not complete withdrawal, of his forces from neighboring Lebanon. That is short of the U.S. demand, but still an indication Assad feels the weight of international pressure.
By some measures, those developments already give Rice a better record than her predecessor, Colin Powell, managed in four years on the job during Bush's first term. The Middle East (search) offers the most dramatic contrast.
The second Palestinian uprising lasted the whole of Powell's tenure, and unofficially ended the month after he left the State Department. Powell made a direct demand to the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon; he was ignored. He talked of brighter prospects for democracy throughout the region, yet saw few concrete results.
It is still far from clear that Rice will succeed where Powell did not, or that she is really the agent of change. The fast pace of events in Lebanon (search), for example, began with last month's assassination of a prominent politician opposed to Syria's interference in his country.
"The smart money is always against success and progress in the Middle East, but if you look around the region there are four or five positive trends," said Dan Byman of Georgetown University's school of foreign service. "If even one or two of these go forward, it is significant."
A specialist on the Soviet Union, Rice knows that totalitarian states tend to crumble quickly and that the void they leave is not always quickly or easily filled with model democracies.
Violence and inertia could eclipse the giddy sight of Lebanese demonstrating in the streets against Syrian domination and Egyptians chanting "enough" after 24 years of one-party rule.
"It certainly has a feel of people gaining a sense of their own power to change things, a sense of their own ability to chart a different course despite what just months ago had seem to be a fairly implacable status quo," Rice told PBS last week.
"But it's also important to recognize that there is hard work ahead, that this will not necessarily unfold easily," she said in the interview. "There are regimes that will try and frustrate these opportunities that are there for the people of the Middle East. They have a hard road ahead because democracy, while it is desirable, is never easy."
Bush made Arab governments nervous with his inauguration address on Jan. 20. The president seemed to put them on notice that the United States would judge them by the amount of liberty they provided their people.
Bush's words rung hollow to some, given the long U.S. history of dealing with tyrants. To others, Bush sounded naive.
Rice suggested that Bush has been vindicated in short order.
"There was so much talk before about whether, when the president talked about the spread of freedom and liberty, this was somehow going to be America imposing its will, imposing democracy," Rice said on PBS.
Instead, she said, "You're seeing people responding not just to the president's words, although when the American president says things, it matters, but responding to what they see as changed circumstances in which they may be able to chart a different kind of future."