The rocky ascent of Condoleezza Rice
With the publication of Condoleezza Rice's bulky account of her experience as George W. Bush's closest adviser on foreign policy, the memoirs of the major figures involved in the muddled, fateful decision to invade Iraq almost nine years ago are now nearly all in. We've heard from the president himself, his vice president, defense secretary, CIA chief and, indirectly, from his first secretary of state. (Colin Powell decided it was the better part of valor to let a sympathetic biographer give his version of how he was circumvented and, finally, sidelined.)
Added together, these several thousand pages tell us remarkably little that we hadn't already learned from the better journalism of the period, including the Bob Woodward trilogy that gave the policymakers their first shots at self-justification and mutual recrimination (all unattributed, of course). Rice Bush's second secretary of state after having served as national security adviser in his first term mostly seeks, as she did in office, to reconcile dissonant, sometimes irreconcilable viewpoints. Occasionally she acknowledges that this was a strain. How much of a strain we finally discover when we work our way through to the point, midway in the second term, at which the president tells her he's thinking of replacing Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon with Robert Gates. "I could barely contain my joy," Rice writes.
She takes pains not to hail this switch as a personal victory. There was "nothing personal," she insists, in her differences with "Don." (All the policymakers below the president and vice president are on a deceptively chummy first-name basis in her recounting: Don, Colin, George, Dave, Mike, Tommy, Jerry, Karl and Al. Often she feels no need to mention the surnames: Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet, Petraeus, Hayden, Franks, Bremer, Rove and Gonzales.) She tactfully doesn't touch on what she obviously knows since the Bush and Cheney memoirs both say so that the vice president had opposed Rumsfeld's ouster. That makes Don's departure all the more of a victory. For the final two years of the Bush administration, hers will be its strongest foreign policy voice. Her memoir is half again as long as her president's, even more copious with regard to his administration than Rumsfeld's mammoth 815-page offering, in which George W. Bush first appears on page 272.
Rice doesn't enthrall. She can sound for dreary stretches like the musty briefing papers and dated talking points on which she often depends. Her narrative sticks too faithfully to her calendar, so as soon as she gets into a discussion of the Iraq war, she takes off for Moscow or New Delhi or Kuala Lumpur, with the result that its judgments and conclusions are scattered and underplayed, conveniently perhaps for the author but inconveniently for readers. Still, unlike the other testimonies from the last administration, it has a sketchy plot that goes beyond yesterday's news and hints of character development, her own and the president's.
It's her second memoir in two years. (In each case, she thanks an extensive personal staff of assistants, researchers and fact-checkers.) The first, "Extraordinary, Ordinary People," carried her to the inauguration of the second Bush from her childhood in segregated Birmingham, Ala., where her father, the minister of a Presbyterian church for middle-class blacks, declined to march with the Baptist reverends Fred Shuttleworth and Martin Luther King Jr. because, he said, he didn't believe in nonviolence as a response to violence and thought it wrong to expose the community's youth to Bull Connor's police dogs and fire hoses. He "hated" the idea, the daughter writes. But he was active in a neighborhood patrol set up to repel white intruders. Because of that experience, she calls herself "a fierce defender" of the right to bear arms. "Had my father and his neighbors registered their weapons, Bull Connor surely would have confiscated them or worse," she says.
The 1,100 pages in these books could, just possibly, be of more than retrospective or academic interest. Rice, who's now affiliated with the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif., is 57. Though she plays down the idea that she might be tempted by elective office and has expressed the heretical view for a latter-day Republican that Roe v. Wade shouldn't be overturned a Mitt Romney-Condi Rice ticket next summer is a not unimaginable long shot (assuming the former Massachusetts governor gets that far). She's likely to be mentioned as a prospective running mate if only because she has what's next to invisible in the Republican field ''foreign policy credentials,'' however hard-earned. Besides, as she says in the new book, "I do know how to talk." In her own self-portrait, she's "combative" and "a natural debater." (If one continues with this premature line of speculation, there's a further calculation that might tempt campaign strategists: That she could cut a little into Barack Obama's solid support among African-Americans while giving white independents who backed him in 2008 the comfort of feeling they were not deserting the first black president for racial reasons.)
What she carries is the albatross of Iraq and her shaky, complicit performance in the White House as national security adviser, which is only partially offset by her gradual emergence as a reasonably effective foreign policymaker in her own right as secretary of state. In her first job she had two principal, often conflicting responsibilities: to support the president's policies and to make sure the policymaking arms of government gave him clear options based on good intelligence.
Asked by Elisabeth Bumiller, the author of a 2007 biography, whether she performed this role well, Rice replied: "I don't know. I think I did OK." Everyone else seems to agree that she was too wrapped up in the first part of her role too close to the president and sensitive to his moods to manage the second. They were, he was given to saying, "like brother and sister."
As its title suggests, "No Higher Honor" is a self-regarding book. Its author is wrapped up in her ascent, the real-life drama of her American journey, and seldom reflective. An ace networker, Rice is loath to bare the grudges she bears. Her judgments of persons and policies come in fragments, brief passing remarks scattered through the book, jigsaw pieces that need to be put together. From the outset of the administration, there were conflicts between Rumsfeld and Powell, she tells us, without at first saying exactly what issues were involved. Her task, she says, was to "work around" their mutual mistrust. At some stage she's vague about when Powell tells her that Bush ought to choose between them. It's a point she should have made to the president, she now concedes, but she didn't, though she was used to speaking out "in private."
"I've asked myself many times how I might have broken this cycle of distrust and dysfunction," she writes. Pages later, she drops a hint about what might have held her back. It was her reading of the president himself, it seems. Powell wanted early on to resolve gaping differences with the White House over Israelis and Palestinians at a time of suicide bombings and severe reprisals and plans to augment settlements, which the State Department thought excessive. She was "sympathetic to him because he was on the front line every day." But, she goes on, "I talked to the president every day, and I knew where he stood." If there were a policy showdown, she suggests, Powell would have lost. The result "would be so pro-Israeli as to inflame an already bad situation." The kind of clarity to which the president was given, she seems to be saying, served no one's interest in that and other cases.
Powell, she says, "probably didn't realize how often I took State's case to the president sympathetically." In another case, pondering the possibility of a renewed diplomatic effort with North Korea, she describes how she would try to get a hint of Bush's attitude and mood before opening such a sensitive issue for formal discussion: "The likelihood of a good outcome was increased if I knew in advance the limits of the president's tolerance. In this case, it was clear that he wouldn't tolerate very much." She's speaking of his tolerance for diplomacy. When the dominant subject becomes Iraq as it did within weeks of Sept. 11, 2001 the need to "work around" tough issues on which open discussion might breach "the limits of the president's tolerance" becomes ever more pronounced.
What's missing from this account from all the self-justifying, tidied-up memoirs emerging from the last administration is any coherent presentation of the strategic reasoning behind the rush to pre-emptive war. One can imagine an argument in the administration's secret councils along these lines: the U.S. having been attacked by Arabs, shock therapy is called for not just in remote Afghanistan but in a land where Arabs predominate; we can hardly attack our ally Saudi Arabia, even though it's the evident seedbed of the sort of Islamic militancy personified by Osama bin Laden; therefore, we need to find a foothold and allies in a significant Arab land, preferably one that also has oil; and, finally, Iraq where the United States has already called for "regime change" is a ready-made target of opportunity for such a war of choice because it's ruled by a tyrant with whom the international community has unfinished business over weapons inspections.
Her public role as "surrogate" ultimately became more important than her role as gatekeeper for policymaking. Those who raised skeptical questions were deemed to be not on the team. Rice was always on the team. At the same time, she was responsible for monitoring the work of the U.N. inspectors who were finally readmitted into Iraq as war clouds gathered. She found Hans Blix, the Swede charged with running the inspections, to be "honest and pretty tough." The proof of his honesty was his willingness to say that Saddam could not be trusted to come clean. (Her estimate of Blix wasn't accepted by Bush and Cheney, and there's no evidence here that she pushed it.) Blix's take on Rice in his subsequent memoir is equally respectful:
"She had come from a university world demanding empirical knowledge, critical thinking and logical argument and entered the hot, bubbling pot of the political world ... . I always felt she preserved a little cubicle of the unsentimental and rational academic world around her."
By February 2003, the only evidence that interested Washington was evidence supporting its indictment. Blix told Powell that weapons inspections could be completed by April 15. Powell said that would be too late. The troops were already massed in Kuwait and could not be kept waiting, Rice later told him in a phone conversation. The inspectors in Iraq ran down every tip provided by the Americans and found nothing. In Washington, of course, that was taken as the ultimate proof of Saddam's craftiness and duplicity. By the time the attack order had been given, more than 500 sites had been visited. That might have raised questions, but it was too late. "Could there be 100-percent certainty about the existence of weapons of mass destruction but zero-percent knowledge of their location?" Blix wrote in his memoir, posing the question no one in Washington thought, or dared, to ask.Generally defensive in these pages, Rice is also sometimes contrite. Or contrite and simultaneously defensive. On a presidential visit to Israel in 2008, Bush traveled to Bethlehem by car rather than helicopter against the wishes of the Israelis because Rice wanted him to see "the ugliness of the occupation, including the checkpoints and the security wall ... for himself and (because) it would have been an insult to the Palestinians if he didn't." The barriers were taken down, the convoy traveled at speed, but Bush got the point, according to Rice: " 'This is awful,' he said quietly."
Here again, "transformational democracy" hadn't worked. Ariel Sharon, whom the president and the secretary had seen as "crucial to peace," had been incapacitated by a stroke two years earlier. The Freedom Agenda, Rice is forced to conclude, is the work of generations.
Traveling on Air Force One was no longer a thrill. When she flies on her own plane, the secretary is the one who gets to sleep in a bed. One of her last trips was to Tripoli to visit Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who had taken to calling her his "African princess" and proclaiming his desire for her to visit. That might have been reason enough to stay home, but Rice took on the task of guiding Libya back to "international acceptability," ostensibly in return for Gadhafi's surrender of his nuclear stockpile five years earlier. (She may have done something else she doesn't mention; for instance, rewarding the colonel for intelligence help. But that's a guess.) At the end of dinner in his kitchen, he presented her with a video that is set to a tune he has commissioned under the title "Black Flower in the White House."
Rice purports to convey her innermost thoughts here and there in her memoir as a kind of stream of consciousness set off by italics. This is one such occasion. Uh-oh, she has herself thinking, what is this going to be? Not much, it turns out, just film clips of her with various presidents, including Bush. "It was weird, but at least it wasn't raunchy," she says. All in a day's diplomacy, we're meant to conclude, a final payment on a deal that ensured the dictator wouldn't have nuclear weapons when he made his last stand.
It's a strange coda, one that serves as a reminder that "the new Middle East" she'd been strenuously predicting and, she thought, promoting didn't happen on her watch. (Abridged).