By Condoleezza Rice
So far the memoirs coming out of the Bush Administration haven’t done their authors any credit. Known and Unknown unintentionally upheld the conventional wisdom that Donald Rumsfeld was incompetent and nasty, just as In My Time confirmed that Dick Cheney wielded unprecedented power to no good end. President George W. Bush is a detached, suggestible figure in both books, a characterization his Decision Points did nothing to dispel. All three explain themselves with the same boardroom vapidity and rhetorical clichés they used in office, and shirk responsibility for the ugly and stunted decade they oversaw. Colin Powell seems disinclined to make his own contribution, though his feelings are clear: after he endorsed Barack Obama, he told NBC that “the new president is going to have to fix the reputation that we’ve left with the rest of the world.”
Condoleezza Rice is the last major figure from those years to set experience in print, and probably the least offensive. She has a compelling personal story (a brilliant girl growing up in segregated Birmingham), and she clashed with the hated duo, Cheney and Rumsfeld, first as National Security Adviser and then as Secretary of State, where she helped reorient the Bush Administration towards a more realistic and fruitfully diplomatic relationship with the rest of the world. On the surface, No Higher Honor supports that story.
As background for that narrative, it’s important to remember that in the early Bush years, the balance of power favored the belligerent Cheney clique. Rice, who worked for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, was introduced to George W. Bush by his father in the late 1990s. They developed a good rapport, and she became a close adviser as he prepared to run for the presidency, heading a group of Republican foreign policy luminaries who were sussing out a coherent platform for the new candidate, an administrative role similar to her next position as National Security Adviser. In the eighties, she notes, the National Security Council “cooked up secretly” a plan to fund the violent Nicaraguan Contras with money from illegal arms sales to Iran, a scandal that “almost brought down the Reagan presidency.” With this fresh in our minds, she declares her prudent intention was to be “an honest broker,” in the Bush Administration, “not a separate power center.” She’s quick to point out at the beginning of her book that the National Security Council is a “coordinating body,” while the National Security Adviser is “staff” (“rarified staff, to be sure”), tasked with getting “the secretaries to do what the President wants them to do.” She reserved personal opinions for time alone with the President, where, it has become obvious, he was most vulnerable to persuasion.
This was Cheney’s practice as well, but Rice didn’t have a network of supporters in key posts throughout the executive branch, a perk the vice president enjoyed because he picked most of George Bush’s government. This made it hard to rein in Donald Rumsfeld, who was Cheney’s mentor in the Ford Administration. Rumsfeld clashed often with Colin Powell over policy and State Department involvement in Iraq, and resisted Rice’s efforts to align military practice with White House policy:
I am convinced that Don simply resented the role I had to play as national security adviser. He would become frustrated when my staff would reach out to military officers in the Pentagon to coordinate the particulars of a policy among the agencies. This was a routine responsibility for the NSC, but for some reason Don interpreted such actions as a violation of his authority.
With the support of the vice president – whose staff, “which seemed very much of one ultra-hawkish mind, was determined to act as a power center of its own” – Rumsfeld likewise blocked State Department involvement in the planning for war and occupation in Iraq, then answered criticism of his incompetence there with a parade of Vietnam-esque combat statistics and the fallacious claim that security would improve once the political situation did. Nearly the exact opposite occurred when the US changed its strategy after Rumsfeld was fired in 2006.
Rice had succeeded Colin Powell at the State Department two years before:
I was ready to be a line officer with the authority that only Cabinet secretaries have. I was tired of coordinating others and tired of the mismatch between authority and responsibility that is an everyday challenge for the NSA…I knew too that there was a lot of work to do going forward to strengthen diplomacy as a matter of both reality and perception in the Bush administration’s policies.
When the president asked her to be Secretary of State, she ventured the idea that “we had repair work to do with the allies and that we’d need to reaffirm the primacy of diplomacy in our foreign policy.” And with Powell’s marginalization in mind, Rice said “that would also mean reaffirming the primacy of the secretary of state as the principal agent of the development and execution of that policy.” Bush agreed. The influence of the hawks was beginning to wane, and she would have a chance to make substantive change.
Rice is much more at home in the State Department chapters, rattling off long lists of personnel appointments, delving into bureaucratic minutiae, holding forth on the dynamics of international relations or the restructuring of authority at Foggy Bottom. Rice was an academic before she entered government and says she loved budgets and administration at Stanford, where she was provost in the 1990s. It shows. She worked hard to tweak the machinery at State, shifting diplomats to the Middle East and Asia (a sensible policy that mirrors President Obama’s recent changes in force deployment), closer cooperation with the Pentagon (made easier by the chastening, then firing of Rumsfeld), a flattening of command structure to encourage a wider diffusion of ideas, and an effort to encourage the study of crucial languages. There are some impressive foreign policy achievements as well. Most controversial was the choice to continue diplomacy with North Korea. Rumsfeld and Cheney scoff at this in their memoirs for making the United States look weak without achieving de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but the North’s intransigence brought the United States and China closer together, to a point where, as an embassy cable released by Wikileaks reveals, the Chinese began to look favorably on unification, an unprecedented development. But the most important thing Rice did was help bring America back around to cooperative diplomacy and respectful collaboration with allies. It’s true this was forced on administration: their failures were so manifest and the country’s resources were so stretched that they had little choice. Still, Rice deserves some credit for seeing this policy through and making the United States less hated and feared abroad.
But the truth is that No Higher Honor is still a weak, equivocating book, and books and powerful officials should both be judged by more than the contrast they evoke with the worst of their kind. Rice’s disputes with Cheney and Rumsfeld were usually less about policy and more about process and relationships. Before she told Bush how she wanted to change his foreign policy, she made a revealing preface: “I said that I hoped he wouldn’t take what I was going to say as criticism of the last four years. After all, I’d been deeply involved in the decisions.”
Those decisions included the very idea of a “war on terror,” a concept, Rice explains, that
reflected the need both to establish an international norm against terrorism in order to delegitimize it as a tactic and to paint vividly an enemy against which the world could mobilize…. the war had to be fought against both the tactic and the people who practiced it.
Declaring war on terrorism allowed terrorists to hijack the next ten years of American foreign policy, and lent rhetorical cover for authoritarian regimes to brutally prosecute wars of their own, as Russia did in Chechnya (a development that made Rice and company “uncomfortable”), and repress genuine movements for freedom, as China did to the Uighurs in its far western province, Xinjiang. The “war on terror” keyed up the American populace for the war in Iraq and justified a brutal detention policy abroad and illegal government surveillance at home. And still there were more than twice as many deaths from terrorism in 2011 as there were before 2001.
Rice also supported torture, though of course she calls it “enhanced interrogation” or even “alternative interrogation techniques,” an Orwellian appellation which appears to describe a lifestyle choice. Predictably, she has softly-couched reservations about procedure. George Bush’s November 13, 2001 executive order establishing the military tribunal system gives her pause, but truthfully, Rice is so vague I couldn’t understand what her objection was, aside from the possibility that a full inter-agency vetting (which the vice president quashed) might have ironed out the problems that led the Supreme Court to order a revision of the system. She was satisfied that torture wasn’t technically torture, since their lawyers had cleared it:
I do not regret the decisions we made. I would never have engaged in—or encouraged the President to undertake—activities that I thought to be illegal. That was why the Justice Department was front and center in the assessment of the policies.
You could be forgiven for thinking that was a joke, because the lawyers at the Justice Department who assessed those policies (the infamous John Yoo among them) were coordinating their activity with the vice president’s office. Whether Rice was aware of that or not – it’s very hard to believe she wasn’t – the stink of hubris and ignorance hovers over this and all the policy catastrophes of the Bush years. “Great democracies,” she flatly intones, “have institutions that are constantly assessing and, if necessary, adjusting the course of the country in the pursuit of consistency with our values and our law, even under the most stressing conditions.”
The class of Bush Administration memoirs doesn’t want for this sort of pap, but it bulks largest in No Higher Honor because Rice is less ideological and more circumspect than the rest. But that doesn’t make a difference: delusion is the book’s most conspicuous feature. In Afghanistan, corruption and a resurgent Taliban are combated with Sunday talk show pabulum: “Afghans could succeed but it was going to be a long struggle.” Entering Iraq as the situation deteriorates, Rice is in a parallel universe: “swooping down into the fortified International Zone, more commonly known as the Green Zone, I felt tremendous anticipation and excitement. I was finally in Baghdad and ready to carry the message that the United States maintained its confidence in the ability of Iraqis to secure a democratic future.”
This mindless sunniness is the mark of a fundamental misunderstanding of America’s account with the world. It is not enough to tacitly admit, as Bush and Rice have done, that America’s traditional policy of pursuing stability in the Middle East has not been fair to the people of that region. The United States has everywhere a decidedly uneven record of respecting human rights and democracy, but politics and national mythology always prevent those facts from being digested. On the occasion of a visit to Chile, Rice reports that her purpose there “was to acknowledge Chile’s long and difficult path to democracy…. Chile had endured so much trouble with military coups and socialist revolutions.” Any honest person would attach an addendum acknowledging that in the very country where she stood, the United States funded its preferred political candidates in the 1950s and 60s, supported an attempted coup in 1970, and squeezed the economy so badly it prompted another coup in 1973 led by the brutal Augusto Pinochet, whom it also supported through the reign of terror that followed. Not every American intervention in Latin America produced a dictator or overthrew a democracy, but it was clear throughout the twentieth century that the US preferred stability and open markets above all else, and the peoples of many countries – including Guatemala, Cuba, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, and El Salvador – were forced to cope with the aftereffects. Rice muses a page later that “for a region that had until recently been known largely for military dictators, our neighbors had come a long way,” a blandly ugly statement and a fine microcosm of the clueless paternalism that’s led to so much carnage in the last sixty years. It explains not only the ambivalence much of the world feels for the United States, but its mixed record in war as well, because America has rarely understood the lands where it sends its soldiers.
It’s clear now that for all the talk of big ideas and change in the way America engages with the world, the greatest failure of the Bush Administration was a lack of imagination. Their faith in the might and moral probity of the United States, which Rice so perfectly epitomizes, blinded them to its weaknesses and hypocrisy: for every Desert Storm there is a Vietnam; for every Yushchenko there is a Pinochet. Perhaps Bush Administration’s rhetoric of freedom will set a standard others will be increasingly obliged to follow. Barack Obama’s intervention in Libya and (at first halting) support for the Arab spring lends that hope some credence. But if history is any guide, more people will have to suffer before America learns to better fulfill the principles that gave it life.
Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.