Failure Personified: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

After six years, the administration’s foreign policy team is a wreck. The president’s poll ratings look good only in comparison to those of the vice president. Both the original defense secretary and deputy defense secretary are gone, discredited by the Iraq debacle. The original secretary of state and deputy secretary of state also have left, viewed at best as loyal soldiers, and at worst as hapless dupes, in a disastrous cause. The president wasn’t even able to win Senate confirmation of his choice for UN ambassador – Cheney confidant and 2000 election recount warrior John Bolton.

Only one high level official seems to have survived with her reputation intact: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Serving a government under siege and a president with disappearing public confidence, Rice stands out. Smart, attractive, and well-spoken, she is perhaps the Bush administration’s only bright light.

Yet she is liked more for what she represents than for what she does. With a compelling personal story, she embodies the best of America. But her actual record is far less presentable. After all, she is a major architect of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, including the Iraq war.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Rice long has impressed the powerful. Bush I National Security Adviser (NSA) Brent Scowcroft appointed her to his staff; Stanford University President Gerhard Casper selected her as provost; former Secretary of State George Shultz introduced her to presidential candidate George W. Bush; and President Bush made her NSA and then secretary of state. It’s a career path of which an obscure academic could only dream.

Yet what has she accomplished?

She is a failure in the war on terrorism. Although the Clinton administration’s record on the issue deserved little praise, then-NSA Rice was specifically warned about the possibility of a serious attack before 9/11 and did nothing. In his book State of Denial, Bob Woodward wrote of the meeting at which CIA Director George Tenet and his deputy, Cofer Black, told Rice of strong evidence that al-Qaeda was planning to strike. Rice originally claimed not to have attended the meeting, or at least that “it was not a meeting in which I was told there was an impending attack and I refused to respond.”

However, reported the New York Times: “A review of White House records has determined that George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, did brief Condoleezza Rice and other top officials on July 10, 2001, about the looming threat from al-Qaeda.” Obviously, hindsight is always clear, and Rice could be forgiven had she attempted to mobilize the FBI and other federal agencies even if those efforts had failed to detect and prevent the 9/11 attacks. She did nothing, however. Reports Woodward: “Tenet and Black felt they were not getting through to Rice. She was polite, but they felt the brush-off.”

Having failed to act to prevent the major terrorist assaults on American soil, Rice subsequently has defended the administration’s response, even when mistaken and abused. Emblematic is the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen wrongly accused of terrorist ties, who was deported by the US to Syria, where he was apparently tortured. Even the new conservative, pro-American government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has complained about Arar’s treatment. When confronted by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay in December, Rice refused to apologize, observing: “It needs to be understood that in a post-September 11 circumstance, we are determined to protect our borders; we’re determined to protect the American people on all our borders.”

That’s all well and good. However, the more extreme the measures adopted by Washington, the more rigorous the administration must be in assessing evidence before penalizing potentially innocent individuals. And the more honest the US government must be in acknowledging and remedying any mistakes. In this administration, apparently even the secretary of state is unconcerned about America’s reputation in the world as well as commitment to justice.

Worst of all, Condoleezza Rice was one of the officials who led the administration to respond in the wrong way in Iraq. She has helped design a foreign policy of failure.

Most Washington observers would not have expected this from Rice, who was presidential candidate Bush’s chief foreign policy adviser. A classical “realist,” she developed a platform that leavened strength with restraint.

In a well-publicized article in Foreign Affairs in early 2000, she wrote that “a Republican administration should refocus the United States on the national interest and the pursuit of key priorities,” including maintaining a strong military, promoting economic growth and democracy, enhancing alliance relationships, building “comprehensive relationships” with China and Russia, and confronting “the threat of rogue regimes and hostile powers.” She emphasized that the US should advance its own interests, which would end up benefitting the world: “America’s pursuit of the national interest will create conditions that promote freedom, markets, and peace.”

Rice criticized the Clinton administration for weakening America’s military through needless deployments (such as Haiti) and multiplying missions “in the face of a continuing budget reduction.” In the next administration, she stated, “military readiness will have to take center stage.”

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Rice discomfited the Europeans by advocating a withdrawal of US troops from the Balkans: “This comes down to function. Carrying out civil administration and police functions is simply going to degrade the American capability to do the things America has to do. We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.”

In explaining candidate George W. Bush’s policy, she told the New York Times: “The United States is the only power that can handle a showdown in the Gulf, mount the kind of force that is needed to protect Saudi Arabia and deter a crisis in the Taiwan Straits. And extended peacekeeping detracts from our readiness for these kinds of global missions.”

Bush, reflecting her position, stated during the Wake Forest University presidential debate with Al Gore: “I hope our European friends become the peacekeepers in Bosnia and in the Balkans. I hope that they put the troops on the ground so that we can withdraw our troops and focus our military on fighting and winning war.”

Even more fundamental, Rice argued in Foreign Affairs that the mission of America’s military was “to deter, fight, and win wars,” particularly “to meet decisively the emergence of any hostile military power in the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Europe.” Since the US was the only power capable of such a role, its military “must not be stretched or diverted into areas that weaken these broader responsibilities.”

Rice particularly dismissed humanitarian intervention, which she said was problematic for a number of reasons. She explained: “A president entering these situations must ask whether decisive force is possible and is likely to be effective and must know how and when to get out. These are difficult criteria to meet, so US intervention in these ‘humanitarian’ crises should be, at best, exceedingly rare.” She was the White House Soviet specialist in the first Bush administration, which worked with Mikhail Gorbachev rather than actively attempting to destroy the Soviet Union.

Her view of dealing with rogue states was particularly notable: “These regimes are living on borrowed time, so there need be no sense of panic about them. Rather, the first line of defense should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence – if they do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration.”

She added, the president must “work with Congress to focus foreign policy around the national interest.” Finally, America should “exercise power without arrogance and pursue its interests without hectoring and bluster.”

Looking at American foreign policy today, it’s hard not to wonder: has Rice been kidnapped and replaced by a neoconservative clone? Either she has had no influence on her government’s conduct of foreign affairs, or she has, in Star Wars parlance, succumbed to the Dark Side.

If anything characterizes the administration’s relationship with Congress, it is peremptory demands for unquestioning compliance and brazen assertions of executive authority. The hallmark of Washington’s dealings with the rest of the world is arrogance, enlivened by endless “hectoring and bluster.” Rather than treating Iraq as a system “living on borrowed time,” the Bush administration acted as if Iraq was an incipient superpower that had to be instantly preempted. Promoting democracy irrespective of consequences has become a prime administration objective.

American belligerence has soured relations with the Europeans and other allied states. Once positive ties with Russia have deteriorated. US forces are still on-station in the Balkans. The administration again used military force in Haiti, this time to oust the political leader who was installed by Washington a decade before. America’s military is overextended and ill-prepared to deal with another serious security contingency.

What happened? In the battle between heavyweights during President Bush’s first term, many observers thought she was outclassed by Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Richard Cheney. But others have foolishly underestimated her throughout her career. Rice displaced Powell after Bush’s reelection and Rumsfeld recently departed. The vice president can’t be fired, but his influence may be on the wane. Today Rice holds the premier foreign policy post in the Bush administration, and policy has not changed. Almost certainly she is a true believer.

Four years ago Nicholas Lemann argued in The New Yorker that “it is evident from what she says in broad, general terms that she has joined the moralists.” Rice explicitly rejects the realist conception of great power politics that she once represented as a Soviet specialist. The National Security Strategy, a consensus document that nevertheless reflected her hand, asserted the universal appeal of American values – that the US offers “a single sustainable model for national success.” Jeffrey Goldberg reports, also in The New Yorker, that she told a group of skeptical colleagues from the first Bush administration: “The world is a messy place, and someone has to clean it up.”

Last January Rice appeared before the Southern Baptist Convention and presented the sort of false moralism routinely advanced by the Clinton administration: “Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the choice before our country, before us as Americans. Will we lead the world or will we withdraw? Will we rise to the challenges of our time or will we shrink from them?”

On Iraq she enthusiastically embraces the president’s policy, whatever it is. She told the Associated Press that the administration would not continue to sacrifice lives and money “if he didn’t believe, and in fact I believe as well, that we can in fact succeed.” Yet the soon-to-be-announced, new and improved Iraq policy appears to be to do a little bit more of what has failed for the last three years.

The cause of Rice’s dramatic conversion is unclear. The terrorist assault on September 11 had an impact, though there was no logical reason that she would flip in favor of preventive war against Iraq. “We tried containment, and it’s clearly broken down,” she told Lemann. Yet little more than a year before she declared: “Saddam had been disarmed and his military forces have not been rebuilt.” Two years before she noted that Iraq could be deterred by the threat of obliteration.

Some observers have pointed to her Christian faith, which she shares with the president. Lemann notes her close relationship with George and Laura Bush: “Bush and the job represent a very large part of her life, even by upper-level White House standards.” She may have adapted to the president’s embrace of global democratization for a mixture of ambition and principle. It’s certainly true that officials are more likely to prosper in George W. Bush’s employ if they parrot his views.

Perhaps more disconcerting than her post-9/11 switch is the fact that she apparently does not recognize the collapse of her “new” foreign policy. Rice recently defended the administration’s busted democracy agenda in the Mideast: “it is a time for pushing and consulting and pressing and seeking what we can do to take advantage of this new strategic context.” Indeed, she argues, apparently seriously, that there are “real advantages for the United States” in the Mideast today, a “new and much more favorable strategic context.” Eh? Rice appears to be living in the same fantasy world as is the president.

Moreover, this former specialist in the Soviet Union, who accepted the need to deal with one of the most monstrous regimes in history, denounces the idea of even talking with Iran and Syria. Neither of them should “need incentives to foster stability in Iraq,” she announced, as if international relations was a game of childish morality. As she knows, or should know, both Iran and Syria benefit from an unstable Iraq, at least so long as America is entangled there. The purpose of negotiation is to find a way – e.g., by offering inducements – to change their calculations. Maybe that’s not possible at an acceptable price, but the US won’t know, absent discussion.

In running for president, Condoleezza Rice’s boss called for “humility” in foreign policy, which seemingly reflected the cautionary views of Hans Morgenthau, whom Rice once admired. But in talking with Lemann she said: “I think if you go through history you can make a very strong argument that it was not acting, or acting too late, that has had the greatest consequences for international politics.” Maybe. However, the counterproductive consequences of misbegotten actions, particularly wars of choice, such as Iraq, are hard to beat.

Politicians and diplomats like to be judged on intentions. By that standard Condoleezza Rice is a great success. She wishes for a democratic, peaceful world, one in which Washington – assisted, of course, by compliant allies – routinely cows evil, obnoxious, unpleasant, and uncooperative regimes into submission. She paints a pretty picture.

But statesmen ultimately must be judged on results. In this regard Secretary Rice, and the president she serves, have failed. They launched a conflict which has killed tens of thousands of people, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, spawned more terrorists the world over, and created a more dangerous and uncertain world. A good person she may be, but a terrible American secretary of state she most certainly is.