• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Rocky Ascent of Condoleezza Rice

lelyveld_2-122211.jpg
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.

  1. 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 www.nybooks.com/icrc-report.pdf

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print