By Condoleezza Rice, Crown Publishers, New York, N.Y. 766 pages, $35
As National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice was one of President George W. Bush’s closest advisors. In this second volume of her memoirs, she not only defends his stewardship of the country, but also explains the central role she played in every foreign affairs issue that arose during his presidency. It is a compelling read, with vivid accounts of Rice’s considerable trouble-shooting prowess, but also settles several scores with those administration officials, Democrats, and journalists with whom she sometimes clashed.
The first volume of Rice’s memoirs was published in 2010 and covered the period from her Alabama girlhood until the inauguration of Bush in January 2001. Much of that book is a tribute to Rice’s parents, career educators who devoted their lives to her and imparted the acuity, values, convictions, and toughness that later served her so well on the world stage.
Her roots in the Jim Crow era are prominently displayed throughout her writings. They not only provide a perspective from which to measure Rice’s own personal journey, but also the extraordinary changes that have taken place in America during her lifetime. As she traveled the globe as the United States’ top diplomat, Rice states that she was often reminded that her story could not have happened anywhere else.
The second volume is broken down into two logical parts. The first deals with Rice’s stint as Bush’s National Security Advisor during his first term, while the second describes her tenure as the Secretary of State in his second term. As might be expected, much of the book is devoted to the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As these events unfolded, Rice served as the National Security Advisor.
In that White House role, she viewed herself as an “honest broker in representing the views of the [cabinet] secretaries to the President but giving him advice privately, not publicly.” According to Rice, it was a difficult juggling act that was made all the more challenging by the culture of “secrecy” and “distrust” promoted by Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and some of their top staffers.
One such example involved the military order signed by Bush on Nov. 13, 2001 that directed the Pentagon to establish military commissions to try detainees captured on the Afghanistan battlefield. Rice bluntly recounts how Cheney and White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez subverted the interagency review process and convinced Bush to sign the order without the customary vetting by either her or the Secretary of State Colin Powell, who embarrassingly found out about it from CNN. In the aftermath, a furious Rice confronted Bush and told him that she would quit if this ever happened again. It didn’t.
Rice’s numerous “dustups” with Rumsfeld have become legendary, and she leaves no doubt as to her opinion of who was principally at fault. She states that their relationship was “testy” because Rumsfeld “resented my role as national security advisor,” and he “didn’t like ‘White House’ interference in his affairs.” This rivalry intensified when Rice later became Secretary of State, with Rumsfeld believing that she was “too indiscriminately flexing [her] figurative muscles, pushing into the Pentagon’s lane.”
Bush’s worst year in office was 2006, with the explosion of multiple international crises, none worse than the military and security deterioration in Iraq. According to Rice, Bush’s turnaround in Iraq in 2007-2008 owed much to the replacement of Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, whom she viewed as more collaborative, and the installation of General David Petraeus as the new Commander of Coalition Forces.
Rice owns up to her mistakes, none larger than her failure in January 2003 to eliminate a “sixteen-word” claim in Bush’s State of the Union speech that Saddam Hussein had purchased nuclear fuel from Niger. In the run-up to war, the inclusion of this reference was intended to provide specific evidence of Saddam’s WMD. To her credit, Rice takes responsibility for the blunder, which seriously damaged Bush’s credibility as subsequent investigation revealed that the claim was based on unreliable intelligence. To Bush’s credit, he did not lose confidence in her.
Rice also admits that she was initially against the early-2007 troop surge in Iraq. She viewed the maneuver as dangerous and ill-advised. It sparks volumes about Rice’s maturity that she can candidly admit that Bush in this instance chose the successful strategic path by not heeding her advice.
As Secretary of State, Rice kept up a punishing travel schedule. The book contains dozens of insightful accounts of her meetings and negotiations with leaders and diplomats from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, North Korea, Russia, Latin America, and Europe. At any given moment, the breadth of Rice’s portfolio was so breathtaking that one wonders how she was able to pull it all off. She holds a special regard for the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose controversial career she believes uniquely positioned him to negotiate a permanent peace with the Palestinians. Rice considers it a tragedy to history that Sharon suffered his debilitating stroke at a time when, fresh off his bold turnover of Gaza, resolution of the larger Palestinian issues seemed possible.
Rice is proud in describing other Bush foreign affairs accomplishments abroad that got lost in the headlines. Bush quadrupled the dollar amount of AIDS relief to Africa. He also implemented the Millennium Challenge program passed by Congress in 2004 that linked U.S. development assistance with good governance in the recipient countries.
She recounts Bush’s role in producing the ouster of Liberia’s brutal dictator, Charles Taylor. Over the objections of Cheney and Rumsfeld, “who saw no earthly reason for U.S. involvement,” Bush positioned three U.S. warships off the Liberian coast and ramped up the international pressure on Taylor, who finally left in August 2003. Two years later, Liberia elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, “the first female head of state on the African continent.”
Tactfully, Rice is generous to the mentors and subordinates who helped her achieve success. As a Russian affairs specialist on the National Security Council of President George H.W. Bush, Rice learned much from Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell, both of whom she credits with helping advance her career. She is also very reverential toward the first President Bush, who recruited her in the late-1990s to help his son hone his foreign affairs views in contemplation for the 2000 election.
A student of history, Rice makes several favorable references to the foreign policy of President Harry Truman and his Secretaries of State, Dean Acheson and George Marshall. These comments are at once both curious and refreshing, coming as they do from a lifelong Republican and respected Russian expert. John Foster Dulles, who merits no mention in the book whatsoever, must be spinning in his grave.
Jeffrey Winn is a partner at Sedgwick LLP.