'The Confidante' exposes Condoleezza Rice's thin intellectual achievements, boundless ambition Print E-mail
 Volume 25 - Issue 01 :: Jan. 05-18, 2008

Condoleezza Rice & the nuclear deal

A careful account that exposes Condoleeza Rice as a rank opportunist who is now stuck with George W. Bush’s politics.

THIS book is about the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, not about the India-United States nuclear deal of 2005. But in portraying her as its “linchpin” and attributing that to Indian perception, the distinguished author, a diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, strains our credulity. He has a finer mind than his subject. It was Philip D. Zelikow, counsellor in the State Department until January 2007, who wrote “most of the manuscript” of the book Germany Unified and Europe Transformed (1995). Condoleezza Rice appeared to have mainly reworked a few chapters. But he generously gave her “co-authorship”. Her intellectual achievements are slender: her ambitions are boundless. Put two together and the recipe for success comes readily to such – sycophancy. Elisabeth Bumiller of The New York Times has also written a biography, Condoleezza Rice: An American Life.

Maureen Dowd read it and wrote in her column in The New York Times: “Condi and W. were both underwhelmed by the CIA’s [Central Intelligence Agency] representation of its case on Iraq’s WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] on Dec. 21, 2002. Yet, only days later, Bumiller reports, Rice and W. were alone in the Oval Office when he surprised her by asking her point blank about the war: ‘Do you think we should do this?’

‘Yes,’ she told the President. That’s not statesmanship. It’s sycophancy.

“She let Rummy waltz away with the occupation and only got back some control after he’d made a historic hash of it. It took her too long to push back on Rummy’s absurd turf-war tricks, like reading or doodling while she was talking, or dropping a Defence Department document on the conference table as Rice was leading a discussion on a different topic so that he could steal the agenda.”

The author has interviewed Romen Sen, the Indian Ambassador to the U.S., former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, Ashley Tellis, former aide to the U.S. Ambassador to India and now our paid lobbyist, Robert D. Blackwill, and a host of American sources.

U.S. President George W. Bush with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after a joint press conference in New Delhi on March 2, 2006. They announced that they had reached a landmark nuclear agreement (RAVEENDRAN/AFP)

Quite unwittingly, the book exposes the utter hypocrisy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the nuclear deal. In the aftermath of the nuclear tests in 1998, it was ready and willing to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and renounce tests. Its Man Friday in the press, who had opposed the CTB, performed a violent somersault, inadvisable for a man of his age. He began advocating signature on the dotted line at the foot of the CTBT. Significantly, the Americans did not contest Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s claim in the Lok Sabha on November 6 that under the deal India has not given up its right to conduct a nuclear test if it decides to do so. The book vindicates him to the hilt.

We learn a lot, but not all, about the fons et orego of the nuclear deal. “During the 2000 presidential campaign, Rice had made clear her interest in broadening ties with India. In her article in Foreign Affairs, she said that ‘India is not a great power yet, but it has the potential to emerge as one’ and pointedly noted that ‘India is an element in China’s calculation, and it should be in American’s too’. As Secretary of State, she decided early on that she should pursue a nuclear deal with India.

“When she was National Security Adviser, she was struck by a comment by her Indian counterpart, Brajesh Mishra, who had bluntly told her that someday the United States would need to let India get out of the nuclear netherworld… The new approach actually was spurred on by an unrelated event: Bush, in a December 2004 Oval Office meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, had secretly agreed to sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, in an effort to inoculate Musharraf from a requested crackdown on Islamic fighters in the northwest territories of his country… The strategic implications of the F-16 sale were enormous for India, since New Delhi worried the aircraft could be used to deliver nuclear weapons…. Rice agreed to hold up the announcement and assigned Zoellick and Philip Zelikow to come up with a way to break the news to New Delhi. They decided to make lemonade out of lemons.” The lemonade was the nuclear deal. It was a mix of various motivations – India in its own right; as a balance against China; and as an ally of the U.S. The challenge before India’s diplomacy is to stick to its own objectives and pursue its own interests vis-a-vis Russia, China and Iran. We learn from Brajesh Mishra’s oral history that Indira Gandhi’s pro-Soviet Advisers successfully thwarted a constructive response to Mao’s famous “smile” in 1970. Mishra was charge d’affairs in Beijing. The Soviets later settled with China in 1986 when it suited them.

But as late as in 1979 Kosygin was warning Prime Minister Morarji Desai about China’s designs. We face a similar pattern today and the Prime Minister must resist ardent pro-American advisers. Remarkably, men who were once devotees of Moscow have transferred their affections to Washington D.C. – for identical reasons. The U.S. promises to help India become a major world power in the 21st century. It is a measure of our low self-esteem that the promise is readily accepted at its face value. We can be and are arrogant; but we lack pride.

Kessler writes: “In private conversations with Indian officials, however, Rice made it clear that she was thinking in very bold terms. Rice’s presentation, while still vague about the specifics, sent shock waves through the Indian government. She took Indian officials into her confidence and disclosed the pending F-16 sale to Pakistan – adding that India could also buy advanced weapons. She also told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that Bush had decided to go beyond the NSSP [Next Steps in Strategic Partnership] and explore cooperation on civil nuclear energy. She suggested that the United States would accommodate [sic] India as a great power – in contrast to the usual approach (from the Indian perspective) of restraining India. Few Indian officials had expected such an expansive presentation from the novice Secretary of State” (emphasis added throughout). 

Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice arrives for the March 2, 2006, press conference (GURINDER OSAN/AP )

On the way back Rice began to dictate the outlines of her South Asian Strategy in a six-page memo for President Bush. “The memo proposed that the administration end the incremental approach on nuclear issues with India, and simply go for broke and cut a broad deal. The incremental approach would require congressional approval eventually, and might be just as difficult to achieve as the ‘Big Bang’, as one of Rice’s aides ironically dubbed the idea. While nuclear orthodoxy would be swept away, the broader strategic goal was simple: position India to become one of the United States’ two or three closest partners…. The memo noted that if the administration wanted to have leverage with India by 2007 on such issues as the border dispute with Pakistan in Kashmir – in order to encourage the democratic process in Pakistan – then the time to build relations with India was now. While some supporters of a deal viewed a more powerful India as a counterweight to China, the memo did not explicitly make that case, except that it suggested that the influence of India and its democratic values could spread toward East Asia.

“The memo did not offer any other options for a broader relationship with India short of cutting a deal on the nuclear issue. Rice wasn’t interested in halfway steps. She thought the nuclear issue was weighing down the relationship with India – and so in her mind it was simply the right thing to do. Ten days after Rice went to Delhi, the White House announced the sale of F-16s to Pakistan.”

Pentagon officials had their own ideas of “a stronger India as a strategically important counterweight to China”. State Department officials hoped to limit India’s production of plutonium to a level that “ensured the minimal deterrent capability if sought” – a tonge-in-cheek formulation.

Indian officials emerge creditably from Kessler’s account. Rice does not. “During talks in June, Saran and other Indian officials made it clear to Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, that they were not interested in outside influence over India’s nuclear weapons program. And time was running short for an agreement: Singh was due to arrive at the White House on July 18, 2005. Under Rice’s game plan, sketched in May, the deal would be reached at that summit meeting – and then the details of implementation would be achieved in time for Bush’s planned visit to India in early 2006.... From the start, the negotiations were tense as it became clear that the U.S. goals were not what India was hoping to hear. One by one, Indian negotiators balked at requests, indicating they would walk away before accepting conditions for inspections and other safeguards.”

At one point the talks collapsed. A compromise was worked out, as is common in such situations. But in her arrogant haste, Rice tripped badly. There was little or no consultation with key members of the U.S. Congress. “In fact, in a written statement Rice had assured Congress during her confirmation process six months earlier that no plans for India would require changes to U.S. law. Rice’s desire for secrecy had outweighed any interest in informing Congress, even though lower-level State Department officials had warned that it was essential to bring Congress on board before an agreement was reached. A midlevel non-proliferation civil servant had written a memo early in 2005 warning about the legal obstacles and bluntly saying that Congress would cause problems unless its prerogatives are respected.”

On the Indian side there were loose ends to be tied up. In September 2005, the U.S. Embassy submitted to India what diplomats call a “nonpaper” which shared with Indian officials a U.S. proposal that India place all its existing and future nuclear power plants on the civilian side of the ledger. It was intended to show the Indian government some of the internal U.S. discussions, but the Indian government rejected it, “saying the discussion of separation was up to India, not the United States”. It was an American ploy to test India’s nerves before Bush arrived in India in March 2006. “An implementation deal was finally reached” then to be worked out eventually in an Agreement.

In this context two passages deserve quotation in extenso: “Nuclear specialists in the U.S. government complained that their concerns once again were overridden in the final negotiating rounds. The implementation plan specified that fourteen of India’s twenty-two nuclear plants would be subject to international inspections. But the country’s eight other reactors, and any future ones for military purposes, would be off-limits – and these were the reactors most likely to produce nuclear weapons material. And although the Bush administration originally wanted a pact that would let India continue producing material for six to ten weapons each year, the plan in theory would allow it enough fissile material for as many as fifty bombs annually, though such an increase is currently constrained by the operating level of India’s few uranium mines. Some outside experts predicted the agreement would unleash a dangerous arms race between China and India. Moreover, while India committed to continue its moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, it did not agree to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.” This fully vindicates the Prime Minister’s claim.

Burns, as the Chief Negotiator, was defensive about the criticism. He felt he had listened to the non-proliferation experts inside the administration and believed he had a good deal. “The focus on the number of nuclear plants was misplaced because as more civilian plants were built, they would be covered by the agreement. He also belittled the idea that India would use the agreement to build up its nuclear weapons stockpile. India, with 300 million people in the middle class and 700 million in poverty, was desperate for energy and thus had little motivation to expand its small deterrent force. But he also privately conceded that opponents had one pretty good argument – the deal would complicate the administration’s efforts to prop up the non-proliferation treaty.”

Brajesh Mishra was National Security Adviser in the NDA regime (V. SUDERSHAN)

Rice’s travels have given birth to a new verb in Israeli government circles based on her first name: “lecondel” – meaning, to come and go for meetings that produce few results – a perfect description for the cruel hoax she played at Annapolis, a conference she knew could not possibly succeed.

The chapter on Palestine records Bush and Rice’s partnership with the hardliners in Israel, Ariel Sharon and his friend and Chief of Staff Dov Weissglas. “The goal of finally resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now seems further away than ever, in part because of decisions she and the President made in the first term and since Rice’s tenure as Secretary of State.”

Two disclosures expose the sheer wickedness of their deceit. The great democrat George W. Bush told the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, in October 2005: “Don’t have an election if you think you will lose.” When Hamas won a landslide victory on January 25, 2006, the U.S. punished it and tore apart the Abbas-Hamas partnership.

Rice told Weissglas as the U.S. prepared to attack Iraq: “This effort, if it happens, will be a strategic relief to Israel.” The most consistent rejectionist state, Iraq, would be wiped out. Do you expect any justice for the Palestinians from the U.S. which, let it be said, fully accepts Bush’s Israel policy? Hillary Clinton would be no better.

Rice is not a convert to Bush’s “ideology”. Kessler’s careful account exposes her as a rank opportunist who is now stuck with that ideology. She became his tutor in the 2000 presidential campaign. “But now, the pupil has become the teacher. To the puzzlement of many who knew her before she worked for George W. Bush, Rice has adopted, almost wholesale, Bush’s moralistic and quasi-religious belief in the power of freedom and democracy. Aides say it is Bush who prods Rice to be bolder and take chances – the exact opposite of the relationship between Bush’s father and his Secretary of State, James A. Baker. Bush now appears to be the person with the bid ideas, while, especially in his first term, Rice’s role had previously been to provide the intellectual rationale for the President’s thinking.

“And while Rice was Bush’s teacher, she was remarkably inexperienced for the job of National Security Adviser. She had no history of plotting grand strategy like Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski; she had been a popular teacher of comparative politics and an academic specialist of the military in the now-defunct Warsaw Pact. Moreover, her experience in the federal government was limited to a brief fellowship with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a two-year stint as a midlevel aide on the National Security Council (NSC). Her senior-level managerial expertise consisted of six years as provost of Stanford University, an important post, particularly on budget issues, but a job with a relatively small staff that did not involve setting broad university strategy.

“Even today, these deficiencies in her background are apparent. Rice, aides and associates say, is not good at either execution or following up on problems. She has good instincts and can master with aplomb the details of the problem at hand. But she loses focus after the crisis has passed, not always checking on whether the solution she reached is being properly implemented.”

U.S. under secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns with Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon before their meeting on the 123 nuclear agreement, at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on June 1, 2007 (V. SUDERSHAN)

What Kessler calls her “intellectual transformation during the Bush presidency” is perfectly understandable. One Stanford colleague recalls being shocked by Rice’s highly partisan speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention, in which she harshly attacked Democrats. “I was quite unsettled by it,” he said. “I was quite angry at it. This was not the Condi Rice I had known. It seemed like she was abandoning her moorings.” This was not the zeal of a convert. It was the passion of a job seeker. She saw an opening for high position and sold herself. Rice has proved her incompetence, both as National Security Adviser and as Secretary of State.

Kessler said in an interview, “She was really ill-suited for the job. She had only had one brief two-year period as a mid-level White House staffer – in the administration of Bush’s father – before she came back to Washington as National Security Adviser. She had no rich history of scholarship or strategic thinking and was not well-versed in the problems of much of the world. She ended up as one of the country’s most ineffective National Security Advisers.” His book concludes: “As President Bush’s confidante for more than seven years, Rice has failed to provide him with a coherent foreign policy vision. The President appears to be the idea generator; after all, he shifted Rice from her roots in foreign policy realism and infused her with a desire to spread democracy through the Middle East [West Asia]. In both presidential terms, Rice was at the centre of the decision making and often responsible for crafting and implementing presidential directives. Yet the results have been disappointing – and sometimes devastating to U.S. interests.”

It would be fascinating to follow her career when her patron demits office, as he mercifully will a year from now. It speaks a lot for the American press that it realised her inadequacies and deficiencies only when her failures became apparent one after another.