Just as the movie “Citizen Kane” brilliantly demonstrated how people can have different memories of the same event, the tradition of post-administration memoirs provides readers with the same opportunity. Both Dick Cheney’s “In My Time” and Condoleezza Rice’s upcoming “No Higher Honor” cover much of the same ground, but deal with similar events in different ways.
War in Lebanon
One of the most dramatic moments in Rice’s book is when, in 2006, she says she learns that the vice president wants to let Israel keep up its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, after she had spent weeks trying to arrange a cease-fire.
Here’s an excerpt from pages 490-491 of Rice’s book. The scene: Bush and Rice are in Crawford, the rest of the National Security Council is beamed in via videoconference:
The President asked me to bring everyone up to date, which I did. I was stunned when the Vice President said in reply we shouldn’t be seeking a [United Nations] resolution. “We need to let the Israelis finish the job,” he said. I scribbled a note to the President. “Where has he been for the last two weeks?” The President didn’t respond. The Vice President continued with a soliloquy that revealed his ex parte (from my point of view) conversations with the Israelis. I was furious. Had he been negotiating with some people within the Israeli government behind my back and suggesting that the United States might support an extension of the war? It was quite unlike the Vice President, whom I’d come to know as straightforward even when we didn’t agree. It occurred to me that this might have been another “staff-driven” view, but it was unacceptable.
[In the meeting Rice responds that Lebanon was close to collapse and the U.N. would soon vote on a resolution.] The Vice President repeated his view that the war should continue. “Do that, and you are dead in the Middle East,” I said to the President — loud enough for the others to hear. The President called a halt to the meeting and said he would get back to everyone. I followed him out of the videoconference room. “I’ve been out there negotiating a resolution, and now we don’t want one?”
By the next morning the President had produced — in his own hand — a document about the Middle East. The essence of the argument was that too much was at stake to allow the war to continue.
While the war in Lebanon takes up a good part of Rice’s narrative, Cheney barely mentions it. Here is his account, from page 480:
In July 2006 after Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel and crossed the border, attacking and taking Israeli soldiers hostage, war broke out between Israel and Lebanon. Hezbollah survived the war, and by the end of 2007 they, along with their ally Syria and their patron Iran, were ascendant in Lebanon. We could have done much more to support the democratic aspirations of the people of Lebanon and thus helped to counter the growing regional prominence of Iran and Syria, had an unrealistic effort [by Rice] to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not absorbed so much of our attention.
Debate over North Korea
Both Rice and Cheney dwell at length on the debate in 2008 over whether to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, with Rice arguing that it was necessary to keep diplomacy going and Cheney saying it would reward bad behavior.
This is Rice’s version, from pages 710-711:
Again the President faced contradictory advice, with the Vice President saying no and me arguing that we needed to take this one last step. The six parties [nations at the disarmament talks] would now work to put in writing what the North had committed to Chris [Hill, the U.S. negotiator] verbally. …We’d obtained information about North Korea’s nuclear activities that had come from the approximately eighteen thousand pages of documentation that the North had handed over earlier that spring.…The quid pro quo was worth a try, and anyway, removing the North from the terrorism list would have little if any effect on the sanctions we imposed on the regime.
That night [October 9], he [Bush] called me several times, clearly struggling with his decision. I talked to [national security adviser] Steve Hadley, who was also struggling, but he had decided he agreed with me on the decision. The President did too. ….I knew that I’d asked the President to walk out on a limb and that if the North Koreas didn’t deliver he’d be subject to fierce criticism. That is, unfortunately, precisely what has come to pass.
In Cheney’s book, on pages 483-488, his anger over the turn of the events spills over:
Months later, when the North Koreans began to deliver documents to us concerning activities at their plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, the documents themselves contained traces of highly enriched uranium.… On June 26, the North Koreans provided a declaration to the Chinese that failed to describe either their uranium enrichment program or their proliferation activities. It did not even fully describe their plutonium activities. Despite this, within hours President Bush was in the Rose Garden, announcing he was lifting provisions of the Trading with the Enemy Act and notifying Congress of his intent to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terror.
I was disappointed, and just because I disagreed with the president. It was his call. But the process and the decision that followed had seemed so out of keeping with the clearheaded way I’d seen him make decisions in the past. … As I listened to the president’s remarks I wondered how, exactly, we were going to go about verifying what we already knew to be a false declaration.
[Cheney recounts weeks of debate as the deadline approaches for the decision on whether to remove Pyongyang from the state sponsors list.] One option we discussed was sending Chris Hill back to Pyongyang to get written assurances. If this agreement was so important, and if Secretary Rice was so confident in the North Korean assurances, why not get a proper agreement? She did not want to do that. And, as it turned out, she didn’t have to.
The next day, October 10, 2008, I got word that the president agreed to allow Secretary Rice to sign the document removing North Korea from the terrorism list, which she did on October 11. It was a sad moment because it seemed to be a repudiation of the Bush Doctrine and a reversal of so much of what we had accomplished in the area of nonproliferation in the first term. The president had been right when he had denounced the failed approach of the Clinton era. Now we seemed to be embracing it.
One side note: How does Cheney manage to mention the traces of enriched uranium on the documents, which in theory remains classified information? If you look in his endnotes, you will discover that he cites a news article.
UPDATE, Oct. 27:
Liz Cheney, the vice president’s daughter and a co-author of the book, says that before publishing it, the vice president did get clearance from the U.S. government to mention the enriched uranium. The newspaper article was only cited to show the information was in the public domain.
In an e-mail, Rice said that she had referred to the enriched uranium in her original draft but the State Department removed it as part of the clearance process for her book. “I wanted to include it because the only way we knew what we knew was because it demonstrated that we were learning due to diplomacy -- not our own information,” Rice said.
(Clearly one part of the government does not know what the other part is declassifying....)