With Gaddafi killed, Mubarak ousted, and Obama’s declaration last week that all troops will withdraw from Iraq by year’s end, Condoleezza Rice’s memoir could not appear at a more auspicious moment. It is the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda” coming to its end, and in her book, she takes stock of that legacy.
Rice comes late to the memoir game: Cheney, Rumsfeld, and even George W. Bush himself have all released their own versions. But she has never been one to follow the crowd. And you get the impression in No Higher Honor, as she narrates her ascent to the most important post in the cabinet, that at times the older guys just didn’t know what hit them. That may be one reason that the likes of former vice president Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld have taken shots at Rice’s management style and alleged emotionalism as they push their own books. (Rice says Rumsfeld is still a friend, in fact, but “grumpy.”)
Today at her small house on a quiet side street near the campus of Stanford University, where she’s back teaching, Rice is comfortable among her students and her cherished possessions: the baby-grand piano her parents gave her when she won a music competition at the age of 15, a massive first edition in Russian of War and Peace, a King James Bible that once belonged to her grandmother. But the edge is still there.
The headlines proclaim the end of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, pulled from a drainpipe and butchered by his own people. “Revolutions are not pretty,” says Rice, “and I think we all have to remember that if political reform comes late, when there is a lot of anger, then it is not going to be either smooth or, frankly, look like we would like it to look.” The ultimate outcome of the fight for democratic rights will be positive, she believes. Whatever the setbacks, she thinks the Freedom Agenda, which she did so much to create and implement, has changed the face of the Middle East.
“We pursued the Freedom Agenda not only because it was right but also because it was necessary,” Rice writes in her book. “There is both a moral case and a practical one for the proposition that no man, woman, or child should live in tyranny. Those who excoriated the approach as idealistic or unrealistic missed the point. In the long run, it is authoritarianism that is unstable and unrealistic.” So there’s no sense dwelling on the final demise of tyrants, whether Gaddafi or, for that matter, Saddam Hussein, whose hanging turned into a hideous spectacle as well. “Time to move on,” says Rice.
But the fascination of Rice’s memoir, and it is fascinating, is less in the broad vision put forth for a more democratic world than in the gritty description of the way decisions were made in the White House and the State Department as the Bush administration sought to adapt to a universe radically changed by Al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001.
Rice’s account of the immediate aftermath, as seen from inside the halls of the White House, is both vivid and disturbing. The threat of a second wave of attacks was real. The possibility that biological or other weapons might be used seemed imminent: some lunatic had put anthrax in the mail; one report received at the White House said many of the people there might have been poisoned with botulinum toxin; another report said a plot was afoot to disseminate smallpox. The intelligence was rarely definitive, and it took a toll on everyone involved.
Rice is honest enough to say that at one point she was just about burned out. While attending a ceremony on the White House lawn soon after she became secretary of state, she saw an airliner approaching. It was on a normal route to land at Reagan National Airport, but for a few moments she thought it was coming straight toward the executive mansion. “Tomorrow I am going to tell the President that I want to leave at the end of the year,” she thought. “I can’t do this anymore.”
But she soldiered on, and key to Rice’s role was the confidence of the president, who emerges from her book as sharper than the clichés indulged in by his critics, but perhaps too familiar, too folksy with those he likes and relies on.
Meanwhile, Rice’s rivals for power constantly tested her authority. These weren’t petty bureaucratic slights; they involved some of the toughest debates in the administration about some of the most important issues. As early as the first months of 2002, there was a consensus that Saddam posed an unacceptable danger to American and global security, that he probably had weapons of mass destruction—there was no question that he wanted them—and that if “coercive diplomacy” that threatened war did not succeed in making him change his ways, or force him from power, then war itself was inevitable. That the intelligence about his having weapons of mass destruction proved to be completely wrong was a huge embarrassment, but neither Rice nor any of the other decision makers involved will concede that the basic goal of eliminating the Iraqi tyrant was flawed.
There were fierce differences inside the administration, however, about what post-Saddam Iraq would look like, and what role the United States should play there. Rice, along with then–secretary of state Colin Powell, questioned whether the Pentagon was deploying enough soldiers to maintain stability. We now know that this was an error, and the chaos post-invasion contributed to the horrific descent into sectarian carnage over the following three years.
Rice’s several attempts to get the Pentagon to address this post-occupation security issue before the invasion “always led to uninformative slides and a rather dismissive handling of the question,” she writes. “When I finally arranged a briefing on the issue before the President in early February , he started the meeting in a way that completely destroyed any chance of getting an answer. ‘This is something Condi has wanted to talk about,’ he said. I could immediately see that the generals no longer thought it to be a serious question. That is the weakness of the national security advisor’s position: Authority comes from the President. If he wasn’t interested in this issue, why should they care?”
Stephen Hadley, who was then Rice’s No. 2 and would succeed her at the National Security Council, followed her to her office after the “disastrous meeting.” “I would have resigned after that comment by the President,” he said. Instead, Rice kept pushing the issue, steadily, persistently, privately, until the president himself was asking pointed questions about preparations for what the Pentagon called Phase IV. But unfortunately the answers still did not meet the demands that developed on the ground. “As the importance of the issue was revealed in the days after the war,” Rice tells us in her book, “I wondered if Steve had been right.” Both Cheney and Rumsfeld tried to make end runs around Rice, sometimes apparently cutting the president out of the loop as well. The critical decision to dissolve the Iraqi Army in 2003 was a fact on the ground before the White House was informed.
In the end, Rice stayed to become secretary of state, where “being out there and being able to set your own agenda,” as she told me, made all the world of difference. But by 2006, Rice was increasingly pessimistic about the course of events in Iraq, which she saw all too clearly was sliding toward civil war. And while the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld continued to call most of the shots, it wasn’t coming up with any convincing solutions. Such were the tensions that Bush encouraged the two of them to visit Iraq together. At a press conference, Rumsfeld spent his time doodling and ignoring most of the reporters’ questions, not to mention Rice’s responses.
The option the White House had begun to favor to stabilize the situation was a surge of 20,000 troops or more, but Rice thought that made no sense if the strategy still depended on the notion, often expressed by Rumsfeld and aides, that “the security situation will get better as the politics get better.” (Of course, this was a none-to-subtle attempt to push responsibility onto the State Department with its “political” agenda.)
“I was skeptical,” she said, “until the day Bob Gates became secretary of defense.” Which was, of course, the day Donald Rumsfeld left.
The wars launched by the Bush administration have cost the United States more than $1 trillion and many thousands of lives. Were they worth it? The Middle East has been a volatile region, with countless wars at countless cost, Rice said as we talked in Stanford. “I don’t think you put a price on a Middle East that will look very different without Saddam Hussein and with movement toward freedom.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this article contained a reference to Colin Powell's memoir. His memoir, published in 1996, followed his service in the George H.W. Bush presidency, not that of George. W. Bush.