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The Rocky Ascent of Condoleezza Rice

Chuck Kennedy/MCT via Getty Images
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.

  1. 1

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

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