Condoleezza Rice Tells MTV News Democracy, Education, Respect Are Keys To Peace

Secretary of state defends Bush response to Katrina; dismisses report that war is creating more terrorists.

If we truly want to bridge the ever-increasing gap between the Western and Muslim worlds, the first step is for young Americans to travel, learn languages and demonstrate that they are not just the images portrayed on nightly news programs.

That's the advice of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who sat down with MTV News on Monday to discuss the war in Iraq, the image of the U.S. in the Muslim world and why she thinks the spread of democracy is the first step toward defeating terrorism.

"It is really important that people around the world get to know Americans and that Americans get to know people from around the world," Rice said. "There are so many misconceptions about what Americans are like. When I go to certain parts of the world, people say, 'Well, Americans are not very family-oriented,' or, 'They don't believe in religion, they're anti-religion.' Or, I hear, 'they are anti-Islam.' "

(For more of Rice's talk with MTV News' Gideon Yago, watch the interview, on Overdrive.)

To combat these kinds of stereotypes, Rice encouraged young people to study abroad — something she's pushed in the State Department through student-exchange programs — go on short-term fellowships and learn foreign languages in order to make the divide between cultures narrower. "I have, with the secretary of education now, some programs to encourage language learning in high schools and in colleges in hard languages, like Arabic and Persian, and languages like Chinese," she said. "So if you're a young person today, I would say really take advantage of the opportunity to get to know other cultures, to get to know other languages, to travel to other places. It just widens your horizon. And, as importantly, meeting Americans when they travel abroad widens other people's horizons about us."

Are We Winning The War On Terror?
Watch Condoleezza talk with MTV News about the report that says we're not.

She also urged Americans to recognize that Islam is a peaceful religion practiced by millions of their fellow citizens, and that respecting other religions is one of the cornerstones of democracy.

Rice said that even in places like Iran, whose diplomatic relations with the United States are shaky at best, there is an opportunity for cultural exchange that can help tear down walls. "I would love to have lots of Iranian students coming to the United States, Iranian musicians coming to the United States, soccer players coming to the United States, and vice versa," she said.

"Because even when there are differences between governments, sometimes people can begin to bridge differences of culture and differences of thought, and it's extremely important to have it happen," she explained.

Even if some people disagree with the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq, Rice said she believes that the war has opened, rather than simply closed, doors of understanding — like helping create the opportunity for Iraq to become more accepting of individual freedoms and political participation by women.

"Iraq, which will be, or is now, the first constitutional democracy, elected democracy in the heart of the Middle East, gives us a chance really to have a place in the Middle East where these values are practiced in the heart of the Arab world," she said, adding, "It will happen. The desire for freedom burns deep in people. If people say you shouldn't impose democracy ... you don't have to impose democracy. You impose tyranny. If you ask people, do you want to have a say in those who are going to govern you, most people will say yes. Do you want to be able to educate your children, both boys and girls? Do you want to be able to worship as you please? These are the basics of democracy."

Like Bush, Rice likened the war in Iraq to that of the Cold War battle with the Soviet Union and the fight against the Nazis in World War II. And just as some thought those struggles would never end, she foresees a time when people will question why anyone would ever doubt that there would be a democratic Iraq, or a democratic Palestinian state.

"Because so many times in international history, things that once seemed impossible, the next day they seem inevitable," she said. "Nobody ever thought the Soviet Union would peacefully collapse, but it did. A lot of people don't believe in democracy in the Middle East, but it will happen."

Part of the fight will have to take place within Islam, she said. "Islam itself has to say that that ideology, which would take everybody back to the 11th century, does not represent Islam, that there is no contradiction between democratic values and Islam, that there is no contradiction between modernity and Islam ... I think it's a false choice, and it's a choice that the terrorists and the extremists would like to make us believe is there, that it's Islam or democracy. It's not Islam or democracy. Those two can certainly live together."

Rice was particularly dismissive of reports that the war in Iraq has helped create more terrorists, based on the leaked contents of a portion of an intelligence document called the National Intelligence Estimate (see "White House, Rice Downplay Report That Iraq War Has Made Terrorism Worse"). "The notion that somehow we're creating more terrorists because we're fighting back, therefore we are hurting ourselves on the war on terror — these are people who have had lots of different reasons for fighting us," she said.

"They didn't like the fact that we left forces in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War. We attacked Afghanistan. This is a movement that does not draw a distinction between Afghanistan and Iraq."

In addition to touching on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur (see "Worldwide Protests Aim To Raise Awareness Of Crisis In Darfur") and re-creating the mood in the White House situation room on the day of the September 11 terror attacks, Rice — whose father was from Baton Rouge, Louisiana — defended the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, denying that it was any less vigorous than the one to the 2001 terror attacks. "I think probably people didn't quite estimate how bad it was, how bad it was going to be," she said, lamenting the fact that so many people were unable to get out of New Orleans.

But in response to the criticism heaped on the Bush administration, such as rapper Kanye West's infamous quip that President Bush "doesn't care about black people" (see "Jay-Z, Diddy, Others Reach Out To Disaster Victims; Kanye West Attacks Bush During Telethon"), Rice was unequivocal. "I resented the notion that somehow it was because a lot of these were black people that people didn't care," she said. "First of all, there's nothing further from the truth. And how dare somebody say anything like that. No president of the United States, most especially this president, who I know and who's my friend, and who I know as well as I know my own family ... the thought that he would let Americans suffer because they were black was just a hideous thing to say."

And even though she's swatted aside the question of her own potential run innumerable times lately, when asked if she thought America was ready for a female president in 2008, Rice said emphatically, "Oh sure. America's ready for a woman president anytime," adding the clarification, "Anytime somebody who actually wants to run for president and does — that would be present company excepted."