Why Condi Is Talking to the Enemy

Lately, Condoleezza Rice has been in a chatty mood. Before leaving for a trip to the Middle East this week—for a regional conference on security and stability in Iraq—she phoned the Speaker of the House, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, to debrief her on a meeting the Speaker had in April with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Once Rice arrived at the regional summit in Egypt, she sat down with her Syrian counterpart to discuss how Syria and the United States could work together to keep foreign jihadis from crossing Syria into Iraq to kill U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. Rice was also hoping to talk to Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, but he beat a hasty retreat from the dinner where Rice planned to approach him, leaving before the secretary of state arrived—and before dinner, according to The New York Times.

In most administrations, dialogue is considered the most dutiful part of being secretary of State. But this is the Bush administration. And for most of the last six years, the president’s team has refused to talk to those who flouted their agenda—be they members of Congress, or rogue states on the verge of going nuclear. The idea of negotiating with renegade North Korea was ridiculed as rewarding “bad behavior.” And, not coincidentally, Dick Cheney, at the time, used the same phrase to describe Pelosi’s unsanctioned trip to Syria; it, too, was “bad behavior.” Like a parent withholding the car keys from an errant teenager, the Bush team lectured that dialogue is a privilege—not a right.

Rice’s talk offensive in Sharm al-Sheikh, engaging Syria, and seeking to engage Iran, marks a dramatic shift for the Bush administration. But it’s a shift Rice has been gently promoting ever since she took the mantle of secretary of State. She was just weeks into the job when she convinced President Bush that the United States should support European efforts to negotiate Iran out of its nuclear ambitions. (The administration had opposed the Europeans’ diplomatic efforts during the tenure of her predecessor, Colin Powell.)

Rice might seem like an unlikely envoy for greater engagement with America’s enemies. In congressional testimony, and appearances on TV talk shows, she hews tightly to the Bush party line, refusing to give an inch to any opponent in any argument—in other words, behaving a lot like her boss. (Rice once objected to my positing that George W. Bush has been a “divisive” figure in American politics.) When the Baker-Hamilton commission issued its report in December, both Bush and Rice rejected out of hand the possibility of talking to Iran and Syria—one of the authors’ principle recommendations.

So what changed? First and foremost, Bush and Rice have no choice but to alter their approach to the region. The situation in Iraq is dire. And Bush’s “surge” stands a much greater chance of succeeding—if it has any chance of succeeding—in bringing stability to Iraq if that country’s neighbors stop arming and training the sectarian fighters battling each other there.
Secondly, Rice has never been the robot she plays on national television. She built the image the public has of her as an ice queen stuck on repeat. It’s the downside of her extreme loyalty to Bush, her discipline and her deep competitive streak. But it’s an image. Rice came of age in a time and a place where the public face and the private self were supposed to be separate. Growing up in segregated Alabama, her family and her middle-class black community taught her that you present the face to the world that is most likely to achieve your goals; you keep your true feelings for you and those closest to you, and you mask them to the world.

So, Rice traveled to Europe in December 2005 to defend the administration against the growing belief that the United States was sanctioning torture in secret CIA prisons and renditions of terrorist suspects. Meanwhile, she’d been fighting backstage for months to change the way America handled terror suspects—not necessarily because of any moral qualms but because the perception that America was condoning torture was bad from a strategic point of view.

That is what Rice is always thinking about: strategy and power. Even when she briefly seemed like she might be a neocon, in the aftermath of 9/11, when she supported remaking the world in America’s image, she did so from a realist point of view. The Middle East had to be made more free, she believed—not because it was morally right or America had a duty to impose itself on the world, but because the only way Americans would be safer from terrorists was to change the conditions of frustration and disempowerment that prevailed in the Arab and Muslim Middle East.

Her years with Bush allowed her to feel the heady excitement that Bush’s idealism inspired, if only temporarily. But she is at heart a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Which is why she worked as enthusiastically for Bush’s father, a multilateralist, and his national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, a die-hard realist, as well as for the idealistic George W. Rice believes what she must to get the job done.

Her tragic—and perhaps fatal—miscalculation was that Iraq would increase American power. It would be a rapid demonstration of American might that would both set the foundation for a transformed Middle East and show America’s opponents what we were capable of. Instead, the administration has committed realism’s cardinal sin: exposed the limits of the nation’s power.

Hence, Rice’s talking tour. The goal is to salvage George W. Bush’s legacy of transformation. If Iraq fails, so, too, does any chance of doing that. And Rice will use any tactic she can to increase the odds of success—even if it means she has to talk to the enemy.