Friday, March 28, 2008

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that the United States still has trouble dealing with race because of a national “birth defect” that denied black Americans the opportunities given to whites at the country’s very founding.

“Black Americans were a founding population,” she said. “Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together — Europeans by choice and Africans in chains. That’s not a very pretty reality of our founding.”

As a result, Miss Rice told editors and reporters at The Washington Times, “descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects of that.”

“That particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today,” she said.

Race has become an issue in this year’s presidential campaign, which prompted a much-discussed speech last week by Sen. Barack Obama, one of the two remaining contenders for the Democratic nomination.

Miss Rice declined to comment on the campaign, saying only that it was “important” that Mr. Obama “gave it for a whole host of reasons.”

But she spoke forcefully on the subject, citing personal and family experience to illustrate “a paradox and contradiction in this country,” which “we still haven’t resolved.”

On the one hand, she said, race in the U.S. “continues to have effects” on public discussions and “the deepest thoughts that people hold.” On the other, “enormous progress” has been made, which allowed her to become the nation’s chief diplomat. “America doesn’t have an easy time dealing with race,” Miss Rice said, adding that members of her family have “endured terrible humiliations.”

“What I would like understood as a black American is that black Americans loved and had faith in this country even when this country didn’t love and have faith in them — and that’s our legacy,” she said.

Miss Rice also said that what “attracted” her to candidate George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign was not foreign policy, but his “no child left behind” initiative, which she said gave equal opportunities to black and white students.

The proposal, much criticized by Mr. Obama and his Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been successful, Miss Rice said.

During her wide-ranging interview with The Times, the secretary also said that boycotting the Summer Olympics in Beijing would be an ineffective way to address China’s “troublesome policies” and called the U.S. boycott of the 1980 games in Moscow “feckless.”

“They invade Afghanistan and the best you can think of is to boycott the Olympics and keep athletes who have been training their entire life from going and competing,” Miss Rice said of the Carter administration’s decision to protest the Soviet regime at the time.

“Who are you kidding? I do not see the benefit of boycotting,” she said. “I do not think the boycott of the 1980 Olympics was very effective. In fact, I think it looked feckless.”

President Bush plans to go to Beijing for the Olympics in August, and Miss Rice said he will bring up China’s human rights record, Beijing’s close ties with the Sudanese government, which Washington has accused of committing genocide in the Darfur region, as well as other issues of concern.

“If you go there, I do think you have an obligation before, during and after to continue to engage the regime about troublesome policies,” the secretary said.

“This is a moment of international recognition for the Chinese people, too, and I would hate to do anything that is insulting to them as well — the people, not the regime,” she said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on a visit to London yesterday, said he would not rule out boycotting the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, depending on how the situation develops in Tibet.

The Chinese government has been accused of using excessive force against pro-independence protesters in Tibet in the past two weeks. Washington has urged Beijing to talk to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, who advocates wider autonomy for the region.

France will be in the European Union president’s chair for the second half of the year, and Mr. Sarkozy said he wanted to consult with other EU leaders before deciding.

“I will refrain from saying whether or not I’m going to the ceremony, and whether other initiatives should be taken,” he said.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, like Mr. Bush, has insisted he will attend the Summer Games.

Miss Rice cited resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ending North Korea’s nuclear programs, and securing Iraq and Afghanistan as the Bush administration’s main foreign-policy priorities for the rest of its term.

She leaves today on yet another Middle East trip to nudge Israelis and Palestinians toward reaching an agreement that would establish a Palestinian state by year’s end.

As part of a deal struck last year in six-nation negotiations, North Korea has shut down and all but disabled its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, but it is resisting providing a declaration of all its past and present nuclear programs.

That has delayed the implementation of the deal’s final phase, in which the North must dismantle its programs in exchange for political and economic incentives.

On Iraq, Miss Rice said she knew that rebuilding the country after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion would be tough, but she “didn’t think it would be this tough.”

“What we didn’t know was how truly broken the society was,” she said.

Although Saddam Hussein’s regime was mostly to blame for that, she said that U.N. sanctions contributed as well, because as a result of them, “agriculture is virtually dead in Iraq.”

“As necessary as they might have been to try to put pressure on the regime, they also did a lot of damage,” Miss Rice said of the sanctions.

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