The Rocky Ascent of Condoleezza Rice

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Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, Washington, D.C., May 2004

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.1)

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, Alabama, 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 eleven hundred 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, is fifty-seven. 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 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 okay.” 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.”

Policymaking in these circumstances was like a ball of snow rolling down a steep slope; it gathered its own momentum. Bush himself became impatient when his top advisers got into open debate in front of him, especially on matters the self-named “decider” thought he’d already decided. Reflexively, he was apt to adjourn meetings when this happened. The “principals,” as the top officials are known, would then seek to approach him individually in “the Oval” as Rice calls his workplace. This was easiest for Cheney and her since they were nearby.

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 Israel and the 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 September 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 preemptive war. One can imagine an argument in the administration’s secret councils along these lines: the US 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.

One can imagine something like that but nothing so cold-blooded or purposeful surfaces in these books. If any such discussions did occur, they were apparently not within the hearing of the national security adviser. Instead, we’re reminded again and again of how reasonable it was to suspect Saddam of preserving devastating weapons of mass destruction and thus the option of handing them on the sly to terrorists for use against us.

None of these books tallies the cost in dollars (approaching one trillion) or lives—Iraqi (possibly 100,000) as well as American (nearly 4,500)—or makes the argument that the long war was worth the price even though the declared war aim, securing the imagined weapons of mass destruction, proved to be chimerical. They simply echo the line, in virtually the same words, that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. Rice says she’s “grateful” that he’s not around to enter a nuclear arms race against Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Given that we’ve known for years that Saddam’s nuclear program was defunct, it’s a puzzling, even slippery argument, an example of a power player continuing to inhabit the White House bubble long after departing the actual premises.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with Senator John Warner and Condoleezza Rice following a meeting on Iraq, Washington, D.C., May 2006

At the same time, even as she resurrects the specter of a nuclear Saddam, she presents herself as regretting that the case against him was constructed out of fragments of intelligence that proved “faulty.” She’s speaking of the notorious aluminum tubes that supposedly could be used to enrich yellowcake uranium from Niger. There was, she insists, “the broader strategic case against Saddam.” But she finds it impossible to lay it out without circling back, in what becomes a circular argument, to the weapons that were never found.

Had they been there, she seems to be saying, Saddam was sufficiently ruthless and unstable to have posed a threat to the United States. And few doubted that they might be there. She was an experienced reader of intelligence reports, given her subordinate role in the administration of the first Bush, and “had never seen a stronger case.” Yet two pages later she acknowledges that when that very case was laid out for the President in a special CIA briefing, just as he was making up his mind to go to war, he was “underwhelmed” by it. Except to say that intelligence estimates are never completely reliable, she makes no attempt to explain how one of the strongest cases she’d seen could be unconvincing when shown to a politician who was already convinced but cool enough to estimate its effect on agnostics.

Rice was nominally in charge of the information that came to the President on the way to momentous decisions. At the same time she was assigned a role “as a reliable surrogate for the President” on Sunday morning TV shows, a public advocate for the decisions he was likely to take. Here the “natural debater” with a confident, confrontational manner—a habitual style of verbal one-upsmanship presumably honed in graduate seminar rooms—repeatedly outdid herself. When she said the high-quality aluminum tubes could be used only for uranium enrichment, she now wants us to understand, she really meant and should have said that they were most likely designed for something nuclear. That slight qualification wouldn’t have made the statement any truer, just harder to contradict. When she said, memorably, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” she wasn’t scare-mongering, merely stating the obvious: that after September 11, “waiting until a threat explodes was not an option.”

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 UN 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 five hundred sites had been visited. That might have raised questions but it was too late. “Could there be 100-per cent certainty about the existence of weapons of mass destruction but zero-per cent 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. Defensiveness smothers the question of whether she was alert enough before September 11 to warnings from outgoing Clintonites and the CIA to the threat posed by bin Laden; also the question of whether the top brass and White House were so preoccupied by Iraq planning in December 2001 that they failed to focus on Tora Bora and the opportunity briefly presented there to grab or eliminate the al-Qaeda leader.

She’s contrite about the appearance in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, weeks before the start of the war, of the already discredited intelligence about the Niger yellowcake. “No one is to blame for this but me,” she now writes. Thirty-seven pages later she shifts some of the blame to George Tenet, who failed to read the advance text of the speech, while acknowledging that she herself had failed to read or register his agency’s revised judgment on the yellowcake. It’s easy to understand how overworked officials can miss out on one crucial document in a stack. What she doesn’t explain is why she allowed her deputy Stephen Hadley to be the one who “stepped forward and selflessly took responsibility for the whole mess” when she became the target of an outcry, months later, over the use of bum intelligence to promote a war.

She blames herself, too, for failing “to get a workable plan for the President” for the maintenance of law and order in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam. When she finally got the question on the President’s agenda, he undercut her by telling the generals who had assembled to brief him that it was “something Condi has wanted to talk about,” a signal to the briefers, she felt, that it was of no great interest to him.

Here she allows herself to blame Bush. “If he wasn’t interested in this issue,” she writes, “why should they [the generals] care?” Hadley told her that he’d have resigned. “As the importance of the issue was revealed in the days after the war,” she writes, “I wondered if Steve had been right.” On rare occasions she describes herself as becoming “furious” because Bush spoke to her in front of others in an “offhand tone” that could be taken as dismissive. This was not such an occasion.

She reveals such occasional irritations in her close relationship with the President, who virtually welcomed her into his family, taking her along on Camp David weekends. But some subjects are too sensitive even now for candor except in small doses—most conspicuously issues surrounding the detention and interrogation of alleged terrorists. In contrast to Cheney, who stoutly defends “enhanced interrogation” in his memoir, Rice goes deadpan, sounds almost brainwashed, as she recites Bush’s ambiguous order that detainees be treated “humanely, and, to the extent possible and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva,” then repeats the old line that she, like the President, relied on Justice Department advice that the interrogation program was legal. Later she complains of the “nonsense” written about the offshore prison at Guantánamo.

She’s much too well mannered and discreet to use crude terms like “waterboarding” or “torture.” But along the way she describes a number of battles fought over the treatment of prisoners. Still at the White House, she protests that the order establishing military commissions was signed before she or Powell knew of its existence. She arranges for the International Committee of the Red Cross to establish a presence at Guantánamo. Later, as secretary of state, in what she calls “the most intense confrontation of my time in Washington,” she duels with Cheney on her demand that secret CIA prisons be acknowledged and closed, finally gaining the President’s backing; then she fights off an executive order reestablishing the agency’s interrogation program until it agrees to “eliminate some of the more aggressive techniques.”

Never does she come to grips with—or even mention—the forty-page confidential and chilling Red Cross report she must have seen in 2007 that detailed the treatment of fourteen “high value” detainees in the secret prisons and categorically branded it torture.2

Her shift to the State Department at the start of the second term was seen by both Bush and Rice as an opportunity to gain the “commitment” and “active loyalty” to Bush’s policies that had been withheld, in the view of the White House, under Powell. The justification for the Iraq war and subsequent occupation, now going badly in its third year, was recast with Rice as cheerleader in chief as a “vision for a democratic Mideast,” a “Freedom Agenda” designed to close a “freedom gap” that gave rise to Arab anger, despair, and militancy. Just five months after moving into her new office, she delivered a ringing, in some ways prescient speech at the University of Cairo calling for freedom of assembly and free elections in Egypt and throughout the region:

For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East—and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.

President Hosni Mubarak was not pleased. (Nor was Secretary Rice herself when, half a year later, Palestinians in Gaza cast their votes for Hamas in a free election. Making policy on her own, she passed a message to the victors through the Russians that the United States would consider engaging with Hamas if it renounced violence and recognized Israel. There was no direct response.)

Rice doesn’t claim—nor can it be rationally argued—that the Bush “Freedom Agenda” inspired this year’s Arab Spring. At the time of her Cairo speech, it was immediately undercut by the bloody images from Iraq on Al Jazeera. But compared today to the careful and ruminative speech Barack Obama delivered in Cairo four years later, it was distinctly more full-throated and explicit in support of democratic rights for Egyptians. (Both speeches struck personal notes: Rice mentioned that her ancestors had been slaves whose “moral worth” was “valued by the demand of the market, not by the dignity of their souls”; Obama that he had Muslim ancestors on his Kenyan father’s side.)

Rice’s assertiveness went down well with Bush and gradually helped to shift the administration away from confrontation to a more traditional, multilateralist approach, the kind she had been schooled in as a young bureaucrat by such mentors as George Shultz and Brent Scowcroft. “Sometimes in diplomacy you have to negotiate with rogue regimes,” she now writes. “You can’t overthrow every one of them by force, and diplomatic isolation, though perhaps psychologically satisfying, is not always effective.” If those truisms have any retrospective application to Iraq in her mind, however, she refrains from spelling it out.

In time, Bush caught the spirit, becoming more engrossed in the subtleties of diplomacy and more ambitious for breakthroughs; also, she tells us, more impatient with Pentagon briefings. In words that come across as slightly patronizing, she describes Bush delivering himself of “one of his strategic insights that always surprised me.” All on his own he comes up with the idea of proposing a “grand bargain” to Pyongyang: if Kim Jong-il would give up his nuclear weapons, the US would sign a peace treaty, finally ending the Korean War, and recognize his regime. Rice is skeptical but Bush perseveres and finally enlists Hu Jintao, the Chinese leader, to act as go-between. No breakthrough follows but the President, we’re told, had made a “strategic leap.”

The secretary, who calls her approach “transformational diplomacy,” is hoping for a breakthrough also with the Israelis and Palestinians. Considering that she served the friendliest administration the Israelis will probably ever see, it’s instructive to compare her complaints about Israeli trickiness and maneuvering to those that have seeped out of the embattled Obama White House. Israel was a close ally and a democracy but its leaders were “sometimes a nightmare to deal with”; they had to be warned not to lobby Congress; in any conversation “there was a ‘but’”; they “always seem to overreach”; getting the Israelis “to actually carry through on promises relating to the Palestinians” was a continuing frustration, particularly promises involving Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

On a presidential visit to Israel in 2008, Bush travels to Bethlehem by car rather than helicopter against the wishes of the Israelis because Rice wants 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 is 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 is to Tripoli to visit Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, 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 takes on the task of guiding Libya back to “international acceptability,” ostensibly in return for Qaddafi’s surrender of his nuclear stockpile five years earlier. (She may be doing 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 presents 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.


A Piece of Cake January 12, 2012

  1. 1

    Powell’s account can be found in Karen DeYoung, Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell (Knopf, 2006). 

  2. 2

    See Mark Danner, ” US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites,” The New York Review, April 9, 2009, and ” The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means,” The New York Review, April 30, 2009. The full text of the report is available on the New York Review website at