A Fallen Star
Condoleezza Rice Is Not the Woman She Once Was
Lexington/The Economist, January 20, 2007
A couple of years ago Dick Morris, an estranged former Clinton adviser, published “Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race”, which argued that Condoleezza Rice was the only person who could save America from a Clinton restoration. Since then Mrs Clinton has gone from strength to strength, and is preparing to announce her presidential candidacy any day now. Ms Rice has taken a relentless battering.
The secretary of state spent this week on a tour of the Middle East before touching down in Germany and Britain. Her aim is to encourage Arab moderates to side with America in stabilising Iraq and the wider Middle East. Her bait is a promise to the Arab world that she will put more American muscle behind the creation of a Palestinian state. All worthy goals. But few people think that she can make much difference.
Ms Rice left home with a flea in her ear. On January 11th the Senate Foreign Relations Committee savaged her for the administration's failures in Iraq. Criticism from the newly ascendant Democrats was perhaps predictable. But she got more of the same from her Republican colleagues. Chuck Hagel said that the administration's new plan in Iraq might be “the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam”.
The secretary of state kept her famous poise throughout the grilling, even when Barbara Boxer cattily remarked that she did not have any children who might be killed in Iraq (Ms Rice is unmarried and childless). But the criticisms were nevertheless telling: as national security adviser in George Bush's first term, Ms Rice bears almost as much responsibility for the mess in Iraq as Mr Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
Her fingerprints are on some of the worst mistakes of the first Bush term. She claimed the White House was unaware of the CIA's doubts about whether Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger, for example, despite the fact that her office had received two memos on the subject and a call from the CIA director. But her culpability is deeper than that. When Ms Rice ran the National Security Council (NSC), it was hopelessly dysfunctional—torn asunder by disputes between the hawks (Mr Cheney and Mr Rumsfeld) and the doves (then secretary of state Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage).
Dealing with a feud between such big political beasts was probably too much for anybody, let alone a relatively inexperienced newcomer. And Mr Bush bears ultimate responsibility for the acts of his administration. Still, Ms Rice spent more time with her boss than anybody else, briefing him every day and spending weekends with his family. She could have done more to force him to listen to Mr Powell's warnings, which he was temperamentally inclined to ignore. She could also have done more to warn him about the lack of preparation for post-Saddam Iraq.
Ms Rice was given a chance to redeem her reputation when she was made secretary of state in the second Bush term. Mr Bush signalled that he wanted a different foreign-policy approach from his first, which Mr Armitage once characterised as “Look, fucker, you do what we want.” She dreamed of reinforcing the expansion of America's hard power with an expansion of its soft power. And she brought valuable resources to her mission: a close relationship with the president, a penchant for multilateralism, a collection of deputies who wanted to reach out to the UN, and, for a while, an adoring press. But her bubble was burst by Israel's invasion of Lebanon. The administration started by trying to give Israel the time it needed to destroy Hizbullah. Ms Rice declared that the world was witnessing “the birth pangs of a new Middle East”. The policy was a disaster: America eventually had to broker a deal that left Hizbullah triumphantly in place. Ms Rice's words continue to haunt her on her current tour of the Middle East. If she is so keen on democracy, why is she cosying up to dictators in Egypt and Saudi Arabia?
Ms Rice has also proved a disappointing manager of the State Department—the institution that was supposed to be the engine of a new diplomatic offensive. She has lost her number two, Robert Zoellick, and her personal adviser, Philip Zelikow, both impressive men, and still has a significant number of positions to fill. The department spent an unprecedented six months finding a replacement for Mr Zoellick.
These failures are surprising given Ms Rice's career before she entered government. As a child growing up in segregated Alabama, she concluded that she needed to be “twice as good” as whites in order to succeed, and notched up a stunning record of achievement—becoming a fine pianist and figure-skater as a child, graduating from university with top honours at 19, earning tenure at Stanford University at a tender age, and becoming provost of the university at 38.
But the traits that made Ms Rice such a perfect protégée may be working against her now she is at the top of the tree. Ms Rice made her career by impressing powerful establishment figures—from Brent Scowcroft (who brought her into the NSC when she was 34) to Messrs Bush senior and junior. But what happens when your patrons disagree about fundamentals? Ms Rice tried a dose of fudge during the first Bush administration (you can find people on both sides of the diplomatic wars of the first term who believed that she was on their side). But mostly she chose to flatter her current patron.
Ms Rice started her career as a tough-minded realist who was sceptical about nation-building and democratisation. She might have chosen to restrain her boss's Manichaean instincts with a dose of that realism. Instead she went along with him. Being a perfect protégée can get one a long way up the greasy pole. But it is not the best qualification for being a successful secretary of state—let alone a candidate for president.