Condoleezza Rice: Off the presidential horizon, and a less than welcome back at Stanford
Saturday September 1, 2007
As Her Star Wanes, Rice Tries to Reshape Legacy By HELENE COOPER
WASHINGTON, Aug. 31 On May 25, Stanford University’s student newspaper, The Stanford Daily, devoted the bulk of its front page to the university’s former provost, who is on leave while she serves out her term as secretary of state. “Condi Eyes Return,” read the headline, “but in What Role?”
Within hours, the letters to the editor started coming in. “Condoleezza Rice serves an administration that has trashed the basic values of academia: reason, science, expertise, and honesty. Stanford should not welcome her back,” wrote Don Ornstein, identified by the newspaper as an emeritus professor of mathematics in a letter published May 31.
Online comments on the newspaper’s Web site were even harsher, a veritable stream of vitriol. One of the milder posts came from Jon Wu, who did not give an affiliation: “Please go away, Rice. We don’t want someone who is responsible for the slaughter of an entire nation teaching at our school.”
There was a time when, perhaps more than Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice seemed to have the best shot at becoming the first woman or the first African-American to be president. But that was before she sounded public alarms based on faulty intelligence to justify the Iraq war, telling CNN, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” It was before a former top Bush administration colleague, David Kay, charged with finding unconventional weapons after the Iraq invasion, referred to Ms. Rice in Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial” as “probably the worst national security adviser since the office was created.”
And it was before furious Lebanese hung a huge banner depicting Ms. Rice’s face, with blood dripping from her lips, from a bridge in central Beirut.
Today, Ms. Rice, 52, continues to have far more star appeal than any other of Mr. Bush’s top advisers. Just last month, GQ magazine ranked her the most powerful person in Washington. Forbes has twice ranked her as the world’s most powerful woman, and Time has listed her as one of the world’s most influential people four times.
But a lot of her gloss has diminished under the steady drumbeat of exposés and tell-all books about the unraveling of the Bush administration and specifically about her inability, as national security adviser, to effectively arbitrate the running turf war between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld over Iraq policy, a war which she, and President Bush, allowed Mr. Rumsfeld to win.
Now Ms. Rice is working hard to reshape her legacy in her remaining 16 months in office. She is cooperating with a range of authors who have lined up to write books about her: “The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy,” by The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, comes out next week, while “Condoleezza Rice: An American Life,” by The New York Times’s Elisabeth Bumiller is due out in December. “Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power,” by Marcus Mabry, now an editor at The Times, came out in May.
Although both the Kessler and the Bumiller books are expected to be critical of Ms. Rice on many points, State Department officials say that it is unusual for a sitting secretary of state to cooperate with so many biographies. But then again, few of her predecessors had multiple authors jostling to write books about them.
Looking Beyond Iraq
Beyond trying to influence the historical record, Ms. Rice is trying hard to rewrite her legacy to include something more than Iraq. Her colleagues and friends say that she has accepted that Iraq is a stain that she probably cannot remove before she leaves office. So she has thrown herself into shoring up the rest of her legacy, zeroing in in recent months on Arab-Israeli peace, as a possible source of redemption.
In Washington and around the world, many now believe that Ms. Rice, after two and a half years on the job, is a far better secretary of state than she was national security adviser. As President Bush’s top diplomat, she has lowered tensions somewhat between America and its allies, after four years of a go-it-alone diplomacy that had chilled trans-Atlantic relations. Despite criticism from conservatives within the administration, she has allowed her North Korea aide, Christopher R. Hill, enough space to negotiate a truce that led to the North’s shutdown of its main nuclear reactor in July.
She has cobbled together a six-nation diplomatic effort to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions which, although unsuccessful so far, has managed for more than a year to hold together on a series of United Nations sanctions against Iran. And perhaps most important, she has used those sanctions, along with tough rhetoric, to tamp down the national-security hawks in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office who have argued for greater consideration of military strikes against Iran.
But none of that has been enough to erase the view that as national security adviser she largely served as a rubber stamp for a series of foreign policy blunders, during a period that critics say will ultimately weigh most heavily on her legacy. “It turned out to be a very disastrous four years in my view,” said Lawrence B. Wilkerson, Mr. Powell’s chief of staff at the State Department while Ms. Rice was national security adviser.
Richard L. Armitage, Mr. Powell’s deputy secretary of state, said he became so frustrated that he once went to the White House and complained privately to Ms. Rice that he felt like he was getting on a “gerbil wheel” every morning “and nothing would be resolved, and we’d get off at night, and the next morning we would get back on and do it all over again.”
But Mr. Armitage said his view of Ms. Rice had since mellowed. “I’ve become more conscious of the fact that the president got the national security adviser he wanted,” he said in an interview this week. “It just wasn’t the national security adviser that I wanted.”
Ms. Rice is rarely, if ever, self-reflective. But in an interview with The New York Times this month, she acknowledged, ever so obliquely, that her first four years working for the Bush administration were not her best.
“I don’t know; if that’s the assessment, you know, I’ll accept people’s assessment,” she said, her demeanor resigned. “The national security adviser is a great job, because you’re very close to the president; you’re working with him, but it’s also a very difficult job because everything is by remote control. You do not own any of the assets.”
She was sitting in the anteroom of her office on the State Department’s seventh floor, in the chair where she usually sits for news media interviews, occasionally falling back on her usual talking points, except this time, those talking points were interspersed with grumbling that she was being asked for personal reflection, something she does not like to do, preferring instead to work through times of personal turmoil on the piano, with Brahms.
In fact, her friends say that she rarely questions whether she is right or wrong, instead choosing to believe in a particular truth with absolute certainty until she doesn’t believe it anymore, at which point she moves on. “Now you’ve got me trying to psycho-analyze myself,” she complained.
She looked around the stately reception room. On the walls were paintings she hung when she arrived of her favorite predecessors as secretary of state: Thomas Jefferson, George C. Marshall, and Dean Acheson.
“I told Steve Hadley once, I frankly prefer being coordinated than coordinating,” she said, referring to the current national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley. National security advisers, she said, end up spending their time thinking: “Let me see if I can get Secretary X to do Y, and Secretary Y to do X, and let’s see if we can get both to do it.” She gave a nod. “I prefer line responsibility,” she said, echoing perhaps the biggest complaint about her time at the National Security Council, that she was more follower than leader.
Act II, New Mission
From her office in Foggy Bottom, Ms. Rice now has more distance about a mile from Mr. Bush than she did when she worked at the White House as part of a bureaucracy that exists solely to serve the president. While still beholden to the president, she sits at the top of a permanent bureaucracy with its own, different tradition and sense of mission.
In her tenure at State, there has been a re-emergence of the more pragmatic thinker who once wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that the president of the United States must remember that the American military “is not a civilian police force.”
“It is not a political referee,” she wrote. “And it is most certainly not designed to build a civilian society.”
These days, her line responsibility has come with some of its own problems. Officials at the Pentagon have complained that Ms. Rice has not coughed up the promised number of diplomats to staff reconstruction teams in Iraqi provinces. Ms. Rice has also come under fire for her abandonment of her onetime passion: the administration’s stated quest for democracy in the Muslim world.
In the Palestinian territories, she engineered a political boycott of the militant Islamist group Hamas after it won legislative elections, which she had pushed for, in 2006. In Pakistan, while continuing to express support for elections, she has scrambled for ways to keep Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator who took power in a 1999 coup, in office. And she made little mention of democracy during a visit to Egypt and Saudi Arabia in July, and did not meet with any political dissidents, citing time pressures and a full schedule.
“It just burns me up that poor Ayman Nour is rotting in jail, and what is she doing about that?” said Max Boot, a security analyst who has generally supported President Bush, referring to the Egyptian dissident who ran against President Hosni Mubarak and was subsequently thrown in jail. “Nothing as far as I can tell.”
“Rice was one of the most passionate defenders of democracy, but it’s been overtaken by this State Department agenda of getting along with dictators,” said Mr. Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “War Made New.”
These days, the flood of Condi-versus-Hillary-for-president spoofs on the Internet have died down. Her approval ratings, while still higher than those of the rest of the administration and Mr. Bush himself, have dipped, to about 47 percent in July from 54 percent in April 2005. And few people are talking about “Rice for president” anymore.
Ms. Rice herself steadfastly maintains that she has no interest in being on a presidential ticket, and says her intent is to return to Stanford when her term is over. But a return to Stanford holds its own problems.
“As a scholar, she’ll be fine,” said Stanford’s president, John L. Hennessy, who succeeded Ms. Rice as provost in 1999. But, he added: “Clearly, there are people who are unhappy about what she’s done as secretary of state. Some would say she should not be allowed back. But that is not a legitimate position.”
She has threatened to write her own memoir, although friends say that it is doubtful that she would produce the sort of finger-pointing manuscript that George J. Tenet and other former administration officials have delivered lately.
This year, she has made four trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories, and is heading back again next month. She has shuttled back and forth between Ramallah, Jerusalem and Amman in search of what she calls a “political horizon” for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. She has engineered six meetings this year between the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Her goals now appear to be focused on a face-to-face high-level meeting between Israeli officials and their Saudi counterparts, in what could eventually bring about the type of rapprochement not seen since President Carter brokered the Camp David accord between Sadat and Begin in 1978.
“I think if we could get to a place where there’s a real, reasonable chance of Arab-Israeli reconciliation as well as Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, that would be a huge step forward,” Ms. Rice said. “I think it’s possible.”
But many of her predecessors in the past have thought this possible, only to leave office frustrated.
“Her strategy is to just keep knocking on this door, without a strategy, making it up as she goes along in an effort to put something together,” said Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who was a senior adviser for Arab-Israeli relations at the State Department under the last three presidents. “This determination is now tied to not just the perception of the national interest, but her own personal interest too.”
Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who advised the American occupation authority in Baghdad in 2004, said it is possible, though unlikely, that Ms. Rice could change the historical record in her remaining time in office. “If she pulls a rabbit out of her hat on the Israeli-Palestinian question, and some kind of political compromise in Iraq, it could partially salvage her legacy,” Mr. Diamond said. But, he added, “If we keep going on the trajectory that is now evident, I think even her tenure as secretary of state is also going to be, frankly, pretty damned.”
For the record, Ms. Rice said that she was not fixated on her legacy. On the morning of the Times interview, she had just returned to the State Department from a private tour of the National Archives, which she said she had always wanted to see. A morning with the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, she said, gave her a different perspective on legacy.
“People are still trying to resolve those legacies,” she said. “I’m not going to worry about my legacy.”
She said the recent visit to Camp David by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan gave her some solace, as a reminder that American policies have helped spread democracy and moderation in unlikely places. “I watched the president standing in front of an American and Afghan flag, and I thought, the American president can now stand in front of an American and Iraqi flag, an American and Lebanese flag, and American and Palestinian flag,” she said. “I think in six years to have helped to foster those changes, even if they’re incomplete, even if they’re tough, even if there’s still work to be done just think about those pictures.”
“Those are pretty dramatic changes,” she said.
She said that she is looking forward to getting back into the classroom at Stanford, where she hopes to interact with students, to challenge them, to hear them out and perhaps to teach them a thing or two about what it’s like to be in the driver’s seat when a national-security crisis explodes.
“I would do a simulation with students, where they are given a problem, some hot spot in the world,” she said. “And over a week they’d have to be the national security adviser solving those problems.”
“All of a sudden,” she said, “it doesn’t look so easy.”