That tough-talkin', spike-heeled, Bush-buddy, veiled personality of a secretary of state of ours is a study in contrasts.
On the one hand, Condo-leezza Rice isn't afraid to display herself in a very public forum donned in disco-diva black-leather boots and military-like regalia. She'll also take on the most rigid of autocratic country leaders when it comes to "spreading the word" about democracy or criticizing their domestic policies. But she's an absolute wimp when it comes to standing up for some of the most democracy-deprived citizens of Planet Earth -- to wit, the women of Saudi Arabia.
America's most powerful woman in government went on a whirlwind Middle East tour last week and made clear that "she is not about to become [the United States'] most outspoken supporter of women's rights."
How odd. Odd, because just days earlier, Rice intervened with the very top command in Pakistan, obtaining a personal pledge from that government that gang-rape victim Mukh-taran Mai will be allowed to visit the United States.
Then she had her State Department public-relations staff pump the media on Rice's personal intervention in the now-infamous case. This, after The New York Times reported the Pakistani government would not release Mai's passport even though it had lifted a ban on her overseas travel.
Odder still because, as the Sunday Times of London reported this past weekend, "Critics claimed (Rice's refusal to take up the cause of Saudi women) also reduced the effect of a hard-hitting speech in Cairo -- She warned the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- both American allies -- that Washington was no longer ready to 'pursue stability at the expense of democracy,' as it has done for the past 60 years."
So the lead diplomat of the Western world isn't afraid to call would-be nuclear power North Korea an "outpost of tyranny" as she did during her confirmation hearings earlier this year. She risked disruption of U.S. economic relations with an entire region of the world over her dislike of one of that region's countries. That is, she threatened to become the first secretary of state in history to pull out of a key ASEAN meeting in July, over concerns the region is not pushing enough for democratic reforms in military-ruled Myanmar.
And yet, when it comes to standing up for the rights of Arab women -- who cannot vote in some countries and can't even drive in Saudi Arabia due to laws that enforce strict gender separation in public in accordance with some interpretations of Islam -- it is too much for Rice to take a public stand.
Even first lady Laura Bush surprised the world with her recent tough talk on women's rights in Islamic countries. "I know from visiting women around the world, from visiting with Palestinian women this week and Israeli women this week, that women want to be involved in civil society," Bush said while in Cairo in May. "Women want to be able to contribute to their countries, just like men do, and that women want peace."
Won't cross the line
What is Rice's problem? The Sunday Times offered her rationale: "Chatting to reporters as she flew from Riyadh to Brussels, Rice was asked why she had 'very pointedly' declined to take a public position on the issue of Saudi women. 'It's just a line I've not wanted to cross ... The United States has to recognize that even after democratic processes have taken place, places are not going to look like the United States ... I think it's important that we do have some boundaries about what we're trying to achieve.'"
The cynic in me asks, "It wouldn't be due to the Bush family's close relationship with the Saudis, now would it?"
If Laura Bush can take on Egypt, why can't Rice take on the Saudi royals? The secretary of state may be blunt, but she's not forthcoming.
X Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.