Commentary: Not all democracies are created equal

Condoleezza Rice, without question, is an accomplished, brilliant, even fascinating woman. From poli-sci prof at Stanford University to the 66th U.S. secretary of state makes for one heck of a resume.

Rice is traveling the country on a book tour for her 700-plus page No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington. She joked Wednesday about the book's heft with the World Affairs Council/Fort Worth Club audience but said that's "less than 100 pages" for each year served in the George W. Bush administration.

What she didn't joke about was the geopolitical hot spot known as the Middle East. Rice called Iran "the poster child for a state sponsor of terrorism." And recent International Atomic Energy Agency reports of Tehran's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons demand a response stronger than more U.N. sanctions, she said.

"Russia and China say don't back them into a corner," Rice said. "Well, it's time to back them."

She said the "jury's still out" on whether the Arab Spring will result in more rights for women and religious minorities in the Middle East.

"Freedom and democracy are not the same thing," she said. Forming a democratic government is not an easy or quick task. "Once people are in the streets and fear has been replaced by anger, it's hard to have smooth political reform."

Rice's words about nurturing the development of democracy while maintaining a balance of power rang hollow when the conversation shifted to Sino-U.S. relations.

A question about why she and other former secretaries of state, including James Baker, told U.S. Sen. John Cornyn to back off the issue of selling new F-16s to Taiwan prompted a history lesson about the one-China policy under which the U.S. treats China as the sovereign state while helping Taiwan to defend itself.

"We have an obligation to Taiwan," Rice said, but the question is "what defense looks like versus what arms will change the balance." Allowing Taiwan to replace its fleet of aging F-16s, which have been around since the mid-1990s, apparently looks wrong.

Rice strolled down memory lane to when Taiwan's then-President Chen Shui-Bian poked Beijing at every opportunity. Chen, who served from 2000 to 2008, had visions of democratic Taiwan as a sovereign republic. China, communist then as now, sees Taiwan as a renegade province.

Chen asked the U.S. for new planes three times in 2006 and 2007. The Bush administration refused.

New F-16s had "the potential to roil the water in cross-strait relations," Rice said.

But what about today, Madame Secretary? Chen is no longer Taiwan's president, yet China is aggressively upgrading its military capabilities, including a radar-equipped Russian aircraft carrier purchased under the pretense of being a floating casino. The carrier started sea trials in August.

"One China" takes on a different meaning should Beijing decide to park that bad baby on the east side of Taiwan and announce, "We're taking the renegade province back."

Cornyn, who's trying to make sure Taiwan doesn't end up off-kilter, spoke about the issue Wednesday during a Hudson Institute speech on defense.

"Look at the aircraft available to the Chinese government versus Taiwan and it's no contest," Cornyn said. The People's Liberation Army Air Force, the world's largest, has developed a J-10 strike fighter and is working on the J-20 stealth fighter.

Besides the old F-16s, Taiwan has equally old French Mirages and F-5s.

The Obama administration is OK with upgrades to Taiwan's existing F-16s. But that process will take planes offline, while Taiwan has no plan to replace the Mirages and F-5s.

"It's a very bad response to a legal responsibility that the United States has," Cornyn said. "This is a message to others around the world, if you are friend of the United States, we are not going to be a reliable partner. Which indeed emboldens the world's bullies."

It is interesting to note that the Obama administration signed off on selling 18 F-16Cs to Iraq -- where the jury also is out on how well democracy will take root -- but won't sell them to our longtime democratic ally, Taiwan.