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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 October 2005, 21:41 GMT 22:41 UK
Rice taking Straw to her heartland
By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw want to show that there's another side to diplomacy.

Condi Rice and Jack Straw
Mr Straw and Ms Rice will spend three days in the southern US

This weekend they're making a joint visit to Alabama. For Condoleezza Rice it's a return to her childhood home.

Both plan to give major foreign policy speeches mixed in with a few lighter moments such as watching a game of American football, a "family" dinner with members of the Rice family and going to church.

There'll also be a bit of US domestic politics - a reception for relief workers involved in Hurricane Katrina and visiting the victims.

A rather odd mix you might think - but we're told this is serious diplomacy at work.

Both Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw already have come under fire for their joint tour of Alabama.

Rice because it looks like a curious departure from foreign affairs into domestic politics - which of course raises questions about her long term political ambitions.

Jack Straw has been criticised by opposition MPs back home because they see this trip as either a jolly or an unwarranted involvement in US politics.

Special relationship

Whatever the criticisms this rather curious tour does show that the US Secretary of State and UK Foreign Secretary have developed a very close working relationship.

One of the activities she wants to undertake as secretary is to bring colleagues to see parts of America
Jim Wilkinson
Ms Rice's senior advisor

This is the first time that Condoleezza Rice has taken a foreign dignitary on a tour like this.

But her senior advisor Jim Wilkinson indicates it will be the first of many: "One of the activities she wants to undertake as secretary is to bring colleagues to see parts of America."

But why should Jack Straw be the first?

Well there are obvious reasons such as the UK's "special" relationship with the United States.

There's no suggestion from the Americans that this should be seen as a "reward" for the UK's strong support over the Iraq war.

But no doubt Condoleezza Rice wants to maintain that relationship as she prepares to build international support in confronting both Syria and Iran.

As for Jack Straw, he's apparently interested in the civil rights movement - and of course Birmingham, Alabama, is the epicentre of where that fight for equality took place in the 1960s.

Noble objectives

But some of the links appear very tenuous indeed.

For example, both Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw will be making speeches at the Blackburn Institute at the University of Alabama - and guess where Jack Straw has a constituency in the UK - yes Blackburn.

Clear-up workers in a devastated neighbourhood of New Orleans
The pair will meet people displaced by Hurricane Katrina

At the very least Ms Rice and Mr Straw hope to send out a strong message of support for the spread of democracy around the globe in their speeches.

The choice of venue also shows that they want to address the issue of race.

Ms Rice will unveil a statue to four black girls killed in a bombing at the Birmingham church (one of the girls was a childhood friend of the US Secretary of State).

By meeting those who've been displaced by Hurricane Katrina she also clearly hopes to prove that her administration cares about the plight of all Americans whatever their colour.

The race issue is important for Jack Straw too, coming from a UK constituency with a large number of British Asians.

But however noble the objectives, there's a danger that many may still be left wondering what it's all about.

Why - with Britain and America already close allies - do they need to spend all this time together?

Wouldn't they be better off investing time with all those countries around the world with whom they really need to improve relations?

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