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Reconstituting Rice

This piece is a book review in the March 10th, 2008 edition of Haaretz.

"Condoleezza Rice: An American Life" by Elisabeth Bumiller, Random House, 432 pages, $27.95

"The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy"
by Glenn Kessler, St. Martin?s Press; 304 pages; $25.95

 
Why have two of Washington's more noted journalists, The New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller, and Glenn Kessler from the Washington Post, both come out with books about Condoleezza Rice in recent months? Certainly her story is a unique and appealing one: Rice may be both the second woman and second African-American to fill the position of secretary of state, but she is very much the first person to be both. Unusually for a Bushie, she maintains high approval ratings, and she may have a political future. And she certainly cuts a more human figure than her colleagues. But the real interest and question being asked in both these works is this: Can Rice still rewrite the image and legacy of the Bush presidency?


Rehabilitating herself from a failed national security adviser to a successful and even transformational secretary of state (which could be the subtitle of both books) is a microcosm of the challenge that faces the entire administration in its twilight year. Rice oversees the policy arena most in need of re-branding and salvation. Which is why Condoleezza Rice and the foreign policy she pursues is of particular interest to Israelis and Middle Easterners in general. Until further notice, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is the centerpiece of Rice's agenda for her final year in office.

Bumiller's and Kessler's books are very different, but they do share a few common anecdotes and conclusions. One of them is that getting the green light to move on Israeli-Palestinian peace was central to Rice's agreeing to take up the appointment at State during the Bush second term, and pursuing that goal has now become, to quote Bumiller, "a race with time." If one adds to the mix Rice's personal closeness to the president (hence Kessler's title, "The Confidante"), the reshuffles within the administration that have strengthened Rice's position and that she partially engineered (such as the replacement of Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates at the Defense Department), and some initial successes in reframing policy (including on North Korea and Iran), then knowing a little more about Condoleezza Rice sounds like a worthwhile exercise.

Bumiller and Kessler's books tell us a whole lot more about her. While this may be an excessively Israel-centric way of looking at things, these two works could almost be used as a background primer on how Condoleezza Rice might manage the peace process over the next 11 months.

Both authors are sympathetic to Rice, though neither are shy about exposing her failures. Elisabeth Bumiller is heavy on biographical detail and tells us an awful lot about the young Rice. Only on page 131 does Rice, then in her early 30s, arrive to work for the administration of George H.W. Bush, and only the last 60 pages are devoted to her time heading the State Department, under W. By contrast, Kessler flies from Rice?s childhood to her appointment at Stanford University in 1981 in three pages, and to her becoming national security adviser in another three. His book is all about Rice as the top diplomat, and the substantive policy challenges she faces. Bumiller writes chronologically, taking us from childhood in Alabama (Rice was born in Birmingham in 1954) to university and her subject's quixotic embrace of Sovietology and then onto her government career. Kessler writes thematically, dividing his study into policy areas - including India, North Korea, Sudan, Iran and the peace process. Bumiller, for instance, dispenses with Rice's involvement in negotiating the Israeli-Palestinian Access and Movement Agreement of November 2005 in only two paragraphs.

In truth, in terms of impact and implementation, the AMA - which was supposed to organize the entry and exit of goods and people to and from Gaza and access between the Strip and the West Bank - barely merits a footnote, yet Kessler describes the last minute high-pressure negotiations in rich detail. In our post-Annapolis reality, this episode becomes a revealing insight into the prospective policy and management style of Madame Secretary.

The two writers had different avenues of access to their subject matter. Rice cooperated with Bumiller, providing her eight one-hour interviews, although as the author tells us, "this is not an authorized biography, but an independent work of journalism." Kessler did not work with Rice specifically on his book, though as the senior Washington Post State Department correspondent, he would spend days traveling with the secretary and be exposed to her in a variety of work situations. He draws heavily on these experiences.

Bumiller's work does suffer from the very occasional factual error; Germany, for instance, is described as wielding a United Nations Security Council veto, the Lebanon War is inaccurately portrayed as opening with a Hezbollah rocket attack rather than a cross-border raid. But what the author does give us is a rich insight into Condoleezza Rice, how her history is woven into a part of contemporary American history and how that in turn affects her worldview and becomes part of the policy mix. There is also a generous helping of great stories and who-woulda-thunk-it moments, such as when we discover that Rice attended modeling school in Denver. Late in the book Bumiller recounts an embarrassing episode when Rice was spotted shoe shopping at Ferragamo on Fifth Avenue in New York just as the country was dealing with the devastation wrought by hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and on its African American community in particular. According to Bumiller, Rice had "to face the full nature of her public identity," and it is that identity that Bumiller's book explores in fascinating detail. Alongside that are the more familiar tales of administration infighting, the lead-up to the Iraq war and its mismanagement, and how 9/11 affected the Bush team. Details of her closeness to the president make frequent appearances.

Night riders
The causal line between Rice's formative years and experiences and her subsequent policy preferences is largely one of speculation. Rice has occasionally dropped hints and Bumiller's book weaves in several homespun inferences. Rice in her youth witnessed the harsh discrimination of then segregationist South, even if, as we are told, her parents went to great lengths to protect her from its more ugly daily manifestations. In her Alabama neighborhood there were "night riders," whites who drove through black areas brandishing guns and hurling racist abuse. After the bombing of the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church, in 1963, in which Denise McNair, a young friend of Rice's, was killed, Rice's father became part of a neighborhood-watch group, manning a makeshift checkpoint with a shotgun.

At a dinner with Israeli civil society leaders late last year hosted by the American ambassador at his Herzliya residence, Rice was quoted as describing how these experiences helped her understand both the Palestinian desire for freedom and the Israeli sense of insecurity. Are the "night riders" reminiscent of settler vandalism in Hebron, or of Palestinian militia drive-by shootings? When Prime Minister Salam Fayyad tells Rice of his plans to improve Palestinian security, build capacity and reform institutions even under occupation, is she perhaps reminded of her own conclusions regarding the role of black self-help in ending segregation? Rice has talked about the historic importance of there having been a white constituency in the U.S. that was sick of segregation and helped deliver civil rights reform as a self-interest. When Rice listens to Israelis who are sick of occupation, and who view the two-state solution as part of Israel's national self-interest, does this perhaps strike a familiar chord?

Such analogies can take one only so far. When on page 29, Bumiller tells us that Rice's father did not march with Martin Luther King, Jr., because he was "afraid he would not be able to hold to King's principle of non-violent resistance," should we assume that the daughter, as a result of this formative experience, looks at Hamas and its actions in ways that she does not make public? That would seem not to be the case, and these analogies in all likelihood become rather a limited guide to Rice's thinking.

A more reliable guide is likely to be the concepts and people that have gone into Rice's policymaking at the National Security Council and the State Department. And that is where Glenn Kessler's book comes in most handy. Kessler has done a remarkable job of charting the evolution of Bush Administration policy across a range of issues, and appears equally comfortable and well-informed whether discussing the India nuclear deal, the North Korea Six-Party talks, or that infamous Access and Movement Agreement. He puts us in the working-level discussions where policies are fleshed out, seats us at the table with world leaders, and gives us an appreciation of who the key actors are, as well as the inter-agency and inter-personal rivalries that are at play.

North Korea makes for particularly fascinating reading. Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill played the key role as chief negotiator, stretching his mandate, especially when he met bilaterally with the North Koreans. Hill displayed the kind of diplomatic creativity and flexibility that will be crucial if there is to be an American-assisted breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Kessler, by the way, suggests that Rice's Middle East point man, Assistant Secretary David Welch, was the person pushing a more involved and pragmatic U.S. policy line during the Lebanon War, arguing that the U.S. should "help the Israelis re-think their calculations." Welch may have an important role to play on the Israeli-Palestinian front in the months ahead.

Unintentionally topical, Kessler's book provided us with the missing chapter of the Winograd Report even before it was released. The Winograd Committee was, of course, not tasked with examining the U.S. role in the Second Lebanon War, but it was crucial, and Kessler's chapter on the events of the summer of 2006 is an indispensable addendum to what was published in Jerusalem. It is almost an American mini-Winograd. The American mismanagement of the international diplomatic component of ending the war is all there in Chapter 10.

Kessler describes Rice's Lebanon involvement prior to that summer, despite the dramatic events taking place there, as "drive-by diplomacy." Once hostilities started, Rice insisted on opposing an early cease-fire in favor of a radical re-alignment of the Lebanese reality; this has happened, only not in the way she had in mind. In one of her most memorable and painfully inappropriate choices of phrase, Rice spoke of the "birth pangs of a new Middle East," and it has haunted her ever since. The U.S. failed to use the G8 gathering that was held just days into the conflict to advance a de-escalation, and refused to engage with Damascus, and Rice waited a week before traveling to the region, and even then delayed action toward a cease-fire in the UN. Reading the testimony to the Winograd Committee that has been made public, it is clear that many senior Israeli cabinet ministers had assumed that the Israeli response to the Hezbollah raid would not have the opportunity to become a full-blown war, as diplomacy would quickly intervene. Rice, though, was the absent diplomat. A naive-sounding Secretary Rice told Bumiller that this Lebanon crisis was "my most frustrating time... every time you thought you had it done it would unravel." Welcome to the Middle East, Ms. Rice.

Rice's handling of Lebanon was actually more reminiscent of her days as national security advisor than the new "the time for diplomacy is now" positions she had been staking out at State. This is the most common and recurring theme for both authors - the massive foreign policy mopping-up and reconstruction effort that Secretary Rice is trying to conduct against the backdrop of the scorched-earth terrain bequeathed by National Security Advisor Rice. Here's how Kessler puts it: "Her options and opportunities as Secretary of State are limited by one deeply ironic fact: She was one of the weakest national security advisors in U.S. history.... despite her obvious skill and intelligence, the problems she helped create in the first term are so overwhelming that she will have great difficulty in succeeding."

Shadow of Iraq
Everything occurs in the shadow of Iraq. Rice failed to heed her predecessor Colin Powell's warning over Iraq - "You'll own it." She then became, in Bumiller's words, "a fearsome saleswoman of the war." Finally, as national security adviser, Rice was instrumental in the decision to hand management of Iraq to the neoconservative team in the Pentagon and their Iraqi-exile (exiled, it eventually became clear, from both Iraq and reality) friends. But Iraq was not her only failing at the NSC. The entire inter-agency process was broken. It became standard procedure for Vice President Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld to cut Rice out of the loop. According to Bumiller's account, de-Baathification, the decision to send prisoners to the Guantanamo facility, U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol - all these issues were decided without the knowledge of the national security adviser. Against this background it's easy to understand why at Rice's Senate confirmation vote for the State Department position, she received the highest number of no votes for any nominee to that post since 1825. It's also easy to understand why she is so keen to notch up some real achievements at State and to re-balance the legacy scales.

In trying to re-orient certain aspects of foreign policy, Rice still faces heavyweight, if perhaps no longer formidable, opponents inside the administration. The North Korea deal was sniped at but not prevented. A similar tug-of-war is taking place over Iran policy, though one only has to read Bumiller and be reminded of the intentional cooking of intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion in order to understand that the background to the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran and the reassertion of political independence in this arena. This will not be reversed very easily by Jerusalem. Unfortunately, that leaves Iran policy as neither fish nor fowl - isolation and conditional engagement, threats, sanctions and limited dialogue all pursued simultaneously. And then there?s the policy toward the Annapolis Middle East peace process.
Both Bumiller and Kessler struggle to find a label and big picture by which they can frame the Rice worldview. Kessler discusses the clash between the realist and neoconservative trends within Bush foreign policy and Rice's belated move back in the direction of the former, whence she originally came. Rice began her government career under Bush senior's national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. Bumiller briefly describes the secretary as "a realist turned idealist turned realist again." Both authors tell the story of how Rice learned of the Hamas PLC election victory - on a treadmill at her home gym, as she followed the news-ticker on the bottom of her TV screen early on the morning of January 26, 2006. It was a moment when policy prescriptions pulled in opposing directions. Democratization, the peace process and the war on terror made a very messy splash across the Rice policy canvas.

'What is Rice-ism?'
Bumiller and Kessler's closing arguments on "What is Rice-ism" point in an interesting direction for cleaning up that canvas. Kessler ultimately concludes that Rice "fundamentally lacks... a coherent foreign policy vision," while Bumiller is convinced that "her real ideology was succeeding." That is not a bad starting point, for her success in the peace process would also be Israel's and the region's success. If Rice can succeed - and it will not depend exclusively on her - she will have to be uncharacteristically skillful, competent and detailed in her diplomacy, and abandon the ideological elements of her policy that most undermine her own efforts, in particular the isolation of Hamas and Syria and the refusal to propose to the parties the guidelines for a deal.

Just before Annapolis, Rice's mentor, Scowcroft, together with other luminaries, addressed a letter to the secretary of state that advocated such an approach (in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I and the New America Foundation were active in promoting this letter). But Rice has not, or not yet, returned to the realist camp on this issue.
Early in her life, Condoleezza was being groomed to be a concert pianist, and Bumiller tells us that Rice's mother made up her name from an Italian musical notation, "Condoleezza," meaning, "with sweetness." Rice will require at least one more ingredient in her Middle East peace-making endeavors, but it is not sweetness; on the contrary, she will have to be tough, very tough. The kind of tough that enabled her, as a young and somewhat clumsy figure skater, to fall on her bottom, pick herself up, smile gracefully and persevere.

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