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The Rocky Ascent of Condoleezza Rice

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.

Letters

A Piece of Cake January 12, 2012

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