Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves Washington Thursday for a visit to the Middle East focusing on Arab political reform and advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Later in the trip, Ms. Rice will join President Bush for political talks in East Asia.
The round-the-world journey spanning 12 days will be the longest overseas mission thus far for Ms. Rice, who is already on a pace to be one of the most traveled Secretaries of State ever.
The mission will begin in Bahrain, where she joins in the second annual "Forum for the Future," a ministerial gathering focusing on political reform, and involving countries from the Middle East, North Africa and the G-8 leading industrialized countries.
At a news briefing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Elizabeth Cheney said strides made since the Bush administration launched its Middle East reform initiative in June 2004 should not be underestimated.
Ms. Cheney, the State Department's reform coordinator said amid democratic strides in places like Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Egypt, a political "veil of fear" in the Middle East is lifting, but is not entirely gone:
"There are very clearly still are governments that are employing tyrannical and police-state tactics," said Ms. Cheney. "But I think that we're seeing something very real happening across the region in terms of progress towards opening up societies, opening up political systems and economic systems."
The Bahrain forum, building on a similar meeting last year in Rabat, Morocco, is expected to produce two new international institutions.
A "Foundation for the Future" would underwrite democratization projects, including support for independent media, while a companion "Fund for the Future" would back economic reform in the region, focusing on financing for job-creating small and medium-sized enterprises.
The United States will put up 85 million dollars for the two bodies, about half the initial seed-money, which will come from the Bush administration's Middle East Partnership Initiative.
After Bahrain, Ms. Rice will go to Jeddah to be the co-chair, along with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, of the first U.S.-Saudi Arabian Strategic Dialogue.
President Bush and Saudi King Abdullah agreed last April in Crawford, Texas, to set up the dialogue sessions to strengthen the complex relationship.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch says the talks will cover security, energy, and political issues. Among them subjects on which the United States has been critical of Saudi Arabia, including human rights and religious freedom.
"Saudi Arabia is a key friend of the United States," he noted. "We have important interests with each other, they with us. We need a forum in which we can have an honest and full conversation about the range of things that concern both of our countries, whether it's the question of religious freedom, whether it's energy security, whether it's counter-terrorism. All those things have to be looked at thoroughly."
Traveling to Jerusalem early next week, Ms. Rice will have talks with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials and join in an observance of the 10th anniversary of the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Mr. Welch says the Secretary will try to re-energize efforts, stalled by violence after Israel's disengagement from Gaza, to get the parties to begin fulfilling commitments under the international Middle East peace road map.
He also says the Secretary may take a direct role in critical talks under way on security arrangements for an international outlet for Palestinian goods and travelers through Rafah on the border between Gaza and Egypt.
"The Egyptians have concerns in that regard, by the way, as do the Palestinians. It's not just the Israelis. But the Israelis have an important security concern for how this is administered. And we want to see a Gaza that is more open, more free, and more prosperous. This is the object of our work," he added.
After the Middle East portion of the trip, Ms. Rice goes to Pusan, South Korea, to join President Bush for the annual summit of APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. She will later accompany the President to China and Mongolia.