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…

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