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Condi and the Boys

[He] had never met anyone like Rice. She could talk baseball, football, and foreign policy all at the same time, but she did not sound like an intellectual and she never made him feel inadequate or ignorant. On the contrary, Rice made Bush feel sharper, particularly when she complimented him on his questions. Bush did not know many black people well, and it made him feel good about himself that he got along so easily with Rice. It was hard not to see that she was also attractive, athletic, and competitive, and, like him, underestimated for much of her adult life.

That Rice might ever have felt underestimated seems preposterous. As a child growing up in the Ku Klux Klan culture of Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s, she had been taught that to succeed in the white world she would have to be “twice as good” as the kids in the all-white schools, and almost everything in her life leading to that visit to Kennebunkport should have persuaded her that she was.

The Kennebunkport visit may help explain Rice’s inept performance at the time of September 11 and the approach to the Iraq war. She had come to the job as, in some sense, a pal who understood the young new president, and while president’s pal ought to be an important job in every White House, confusing it with national security adviser is a certain route to trouble. One job calls for improving the president’s day; the other calls for spoiling it by confronting him with news he would rather not hear, exposing him to ideas he would rather not think about, and presenting him with decisions he would rather not make.

At its very best, this might mean articulating a coherent philosophy about foreign affairs with which the president is instinctually comfortable. In no case is it work for someone who feels obliged to make the president feel good about himself. Rice’s failure to force Bush to focus attention on the now famous warnings of an imminent al-Qaeda attack illustrates the problem.

When the intelligence people are as insistent as they had become about an al-Qaeda threat in the summer of 2001, the national security adviser is supposed to do something about it, upsetting though it might be to a president in vacation mode. Rice didn’t. Nor, when Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neocons were flooding the White House with specious justifications for attacking Iraq, did she give a White House airing to different opinions from the State Department and CIA. Instead, performing as presidential pal, she did what a pal would do: she became Bush’s enabler, encouraging him to follow his impulses.

War came in “a series of incremental steps, each one making the next more inevitable,” Bumiller writes.

Many of the major developments, from the battle plan to the demand that Saddam disarm to the decision to begin a massive troop buildup in Iraq, were laid out by Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush. Yet in each case Rice facilitated them as a logical consequence of what had already been decided. In not challenging the moves toward war, she saw herself as carrying out Bush’s wishes…. Inside the White House she did not so much prod the process as get drawn along in its wake.

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s views, whatever they might have been, were treated as irrelevant. In the summer of 2002, with Washington full of war talk, Richard Haass, State Department director of policy planning, found it hard to believe what he was hearing and in one of their regularly scheduled meetings raised concerns about a war. “Rice immediately cut him off,” Bumiller writes.

Save your breath,” she told him, in Haass’s recollection. “The president has made up his mind.” Haass, taken aback, asked Rice if she was sure and if she had thought about the consequences, but Rice made clear that she wanted no more talk on the subject. “The tone of it was, this is not a productive use of our time,” Haass recalled.

Perhaps the most important dissent that summer came from Rice’s old mentor, Brent Scowcroft, the man who had “launched” her career among the national security elite. In an Op-Ed article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Don’t Attack Saddam,” he warned that invading Iraq would lead to a long, bloody, costly occupation and divert the United States from the war on terrorism, then concentrated in Afghanistan.

Because Scowcroft had been national security adviser to the President’s father, Rice knew that all of Washington would read the article as advice from father to son. (Which it probably was; Scowcroft had sent an advance copy to the elder Bush and heard no objections back.) Rice and the President were both “furious.” She phoned Scowcroft. There were sharp words. “Her loyalty,” Bumiller writes, “was to her current boss, not her old one, no matter how much the old one had done for her.”

Rice’s failure in this period is so blatant that we tend to ignore the President’s enthusiasm for war. This was so embedded in a remarkably stubborn mind that it is doubtful whether anyone urging caution could have influenced him. Colin Powell certainly couldn’t. We now know that the President had been thinking warlike thoughts about Saddam Hussein long before the al-Qaeda attacks. Eighteen months before September 11, interviewed by Jim Lehrer of PBS during the 2000 presidential campaign, he spoke about Saddam in a threatening vein. In Dead Certain, his valuable portrait of Bush as campaigner and president, Robert Draper quotes from that interview:

I’m just as frustrated as many Americans are that Saddam Hussein still lives,” he told Lehrer. “I will tell you this: If we catch him developing weapons of mass destruction in any way, shape, or form, I’ll deal with him in a way that he won’t like.”

By bombing? asked Lehrer.

Well, it could be one option. He just needs to know that he’ll be dealt with in a firm way,” Bush replied.

Draper believes Bush was motivated by a “familial hatred” of Saddam. In 1991 his father had put together an international coalition and driven Saddam’s invading army out of Kuwait. Two years later when Bush Senior, then retired from the presidency, paid a visit to Kuwait, sixteen people were arrested on charges of planning to assassinate him. The weapon was to be a car bomb said to have been assembled by Saddam’s intelligence agents.

This history made for a bizarre relationship between Iraq and the Bush family, which may help explain the younger Bush’s zeal for war, especially since everybody assured him it would be an easy triumph. His father’s decision to withdraw his armies from Iraq after driving Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991 was also a factor. Many thought he should have marched to Baghdad and ended the Saddam dictatorship.

Young Bush, speaking to a friend in 1998, said, “Dad made a mistake not going into Iraq when he had an approval rating in the nineties,” Draper recalls. “If I’m ever in that situation, I’ll use it—I’ll spend my political capital.”

The fact seems to be that Bush already had Saddam’s removal on his mind when he came to the White House and that it would have taken a far more inspired adviser than Condoleezza Rice to change the course of history after al-Qaeda struck on September 11. Iraq had no demonstrable relations with al-Qaeda except mutual hostility, but by providing good reason for Bush to put American troops in the Middle East, al-Qaeda had put Iraq in American gun sights.

Draper likens Washington’s desire for war to a contagious fever that had been long breeding in certain host bodies until it was finally released by September 11, whereupon it “swept through the Beltway and insinuated itself into the minds of many,” including both Rice and Bush. The “communicable agent,” he writes, was a conviction that Saddam posed an imminent threat which had to be forcibly removed. Draper’s list of the contagion’s “host bodies” includes Cheney; his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby; Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz; and Douglas J. Feith, a Pentagon undersecretary for policy, all of whom had been carrying the “virus” well before September 11.

Bush was clearly ready to act on such evidence of malign Iraqi intent as the Cheney-Rumsfeld-neocon operation could supply from the special intelligence agency they had installed at the Pentagon, and Rice seems to have been just as ready to cheer him on. Thus we had the stories of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be false, but not before they had served their purpose of getting the Iraq war underway. It did not matter that the UN chief inspector told the Security Council that verifying Iraq’s disarmament would “not take years, nor weeks, but months.” Rice’s contribution was to argue that too much time wasted by investigating might be catastrophic. Or, as she put it in the memorable and chilling line devised by White House speechwriters, and also used by the President, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Failure often seemed to be the high road to success in the Bush administration, but no one has failed so gloriously upward as Condoleezza Rice, whose prize was the State Department. Bush made her secretary of state at the start of his second term, and though it is much too soon to judge whether she can end her Washington career with a success, the outlook cannot be encouraging.

Glenn Kessler’s up-close reporting of her incomplete career at State finds no important change from the woman who declined to try to take a vigorous intellectual lead in Bush’s first term. His book title, The Confidante, contains his judgment. It is not so different from “pal.”

As President Bush’s confidante for more than seven years, Rice has failed to provide him with a coherent foreign policy vision,” he writes. It seems that the President is now the one who generates ideas. A great deal of the diplomatic activity in the second term has been aimed at undoing the disasters of the first term. In the favorite old Washington metaphor, Rice is trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

The recovery work includes trying to restore civility with traditional allies like France and Germany, which Rumsfeld contemptuously dismissed as “old Europe,” and trying to restore the Israeli-Palestinian problem to the merely intractable status that existed before the first Bush term made it simply impossible. This has been high on the Rice-Bush agenda, since anything resembling movement toward improvement seems so unlikely that, should it occur, it might help rescue their “legacy” from Iraq. There is a lot of talk about “legacy” among administration people just now. It is a sure sign that all hands realize they have made a thorough mess of things and hope a miracle might come along.

Condoleezza, who prefers being called Condi, was the only child of two remarkable people and a number of remarkable families. John Rice, her father, was a Presbyterian minister, a schoolteacher, and a football coach. Her mother was also a teacher. She taught music and science, played piano, and was trained in classical music. Both parents had attended college, no small thing in their time, especially for black people in Alabama, and there had been college-trained forbears in earlier generations too.

There was an Italian ancestor named Alto in the family of Condi’s mother, and the family honored that in the naming of their children. Some of the males were named Alto, Condi’s mother was Angelena, and she had an aunt named Genoa. Angelena created Condi’s name from the Italian musical notation con dolcezza, meaning “with sweetness.” (“My God, why are you going to name her Condoleezza?” Aunt Genoa asked. “She’ll never learn how to spell it!”)

The Rices lived in an upscale black section of Birmingham where parents tried hard to shelter the children from contact with the ugly realities of segregation. It was a conservative, proud culture in which parents sought to protect the young from growing up thinking of themselves as second-class citizens. When they went out they avoided places where blacks had to go in through the back door. When children wanted a drink of water or to use a toilet, they were taught to wait until they got home. It was that kind of world in Birmingham in the 1960s, when so many black homes were being dynamited on behalf of white supremacy that the city was known as “Bombingham.”

A child can be sheltered only so long from reality, and the Rices, who doted on Condi, and must have spoiled her, moved to Colorado. The spoiling did not extend to leaving her idle. Her parents drove her to excel in class and work tirelessly at the piano. Angelena pressed school principals to let Condi skip a grade here and there. She was good and her parents taught her to succeed, and she did. She was a natural overachiever.

With eighteen months remaining to Rice as secretary of state, Bumiller writes:

It was obvious from Rice’s many metamorphoses that her real ideology was not idealism or realism or defending the citadels of freedom, although she displayed elements of all of them. Her real ideology was succeeding.

This judgment is reinforced by Rice’s story of the piano career that never was. After devoting years of her childhood to studying and practicing piano because her parents thought she might some day master the concert stage, she suddenly abandoned it at the age of seventeen after attending a summer music camp for child prodigies from across the country. There she heard much younger children play, realized that they already played better than she ever would, and knew that she would never become a great pianist.

Choosing not to settle for a life giving piano lessons, as she put it to Bumiller, she stunned her parents by announcing that her music career was over. Before graduating from high school she was studying political science, and two years later was studying international affairs, with special attention to Soviet history, at the University of Denver. She had been attracted to the field by a professor named Josef Korbel, who, like other important men to come, was much impressed by her.

Korbel was a Czech refugee destined to cast a long shadow in State Department history, and in the annals of feminism. Mentor of Condoleezza Rice, the first black woman to be secretary of state, he was also the father of Madeleine Albright, the first woman to hold the office. Albright was appointed in 1996 by President Clinton. Neither woman knew of the other before Korbel’s death in 1977.

By 1987, when both women moved in the foreign-policy world, Madeleine asked Condi to work in a Democratic presidential campaign. “Madeleine, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m a Republican,” Rice replied.

Albright was astonished,” Bumiller writes. “‘Condi, how could that be?’ she asked. ‘We had the same father.’”

Since then their differences on policy matters have been deep. Albright told Bumiller that she was “very unhappy about what has happened to the term ‘democracy’ under this administration, where it has now been militarized.” Her father, she said, would have been upset about the Iraq war because it had “ruined America’s reputation in the world” and there was no “forward thinking” in its planning.

In response, Rice told Bumiller, “Let’s not try to put thoughts and words into dead people’s mouths.”

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