But were there discussions about the pros and cons of an invasion? Was there a policy process that allowed all points of views to be exposed? Rice does not say. That was her responsibility as national security adviser, and it is a failing of the book that she does not address the many questions about her management of the national security process in the first term.
She hints at the problems, saying, “I’ve asked myself many times how I might have broken this cycle of distrust and dysfunction.” She recounts being constantly surprised by backdoor maneuvers by the vice president’s office, including one that led her to threaten to resign. She admits to failing to press the Pentagon hard enough for a post-invasion plan and regrets her handling of intelligence concerning illicit weapons in Iraq. The intelligence turned out to be wrong, casting a pall over the motivations for invading Iraq.
Rice is much more open detailing the administration’s struggle to deal with Iraq’s descent into violence during Bush’s second term. She congratulates herself on forcing more State Department officials into the field, but she might want to read “We Meant Well”— a hilarious and often depressing account by a foreign service officer of what really happened on the ground.
Although Rice offers sharp and sometimes penetrating portraits of foreign leaders, her portrayal of Bush is largely blank. This is strange because there has never been a president so close to his national security adviser — or his secretary of state, which gave her extraordinary access, power and influence in the second term.
The president constantly pops up in the narrative, usually with a quip and an insight that Rice finds to be significant. But she never really explains what drew her to him and how they became such a close team. “I liked him,” Rice writes. “He was funny and irreverent but serious about policy.”
There are moments of insight, such as irritation at Bush’s tendency to undermine his staff. Rice also writes that she “visibly stiffened” when Bush said he had gotten a sense of Vladimir Putin’s soul, after hearing a “rather syrupy story” about a cross the Russian leader’s mother had given him, lending the “perception that the President had naively trusted Putin.”
As is usual in administration memoirs, there are sections of historical revisionism. Rice dwells at length on Bush’s decision to call for a Palestine state in 2001, giving it great significance, but wonders why it wasn’t well noticed at the time. Perhaps that’s because President Bill Clinton had already done so before he left office.
In addition, Rice’s account of a fierce debate over whether to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terror is missing a key detail — that intelligence analysts had discovered traces of highly enriched uranium on documents provided by the North Koreans. But she does admit she persuaded Bush to take a gamble that backfired spectacularly.
Reading Rice’s book, one is struck by the irony that she spends her final months grappling with North Korea and trying to forge peace in the Middle East — two issues where Bush had broken most decisively with the approach taken by Clinton. And yet, eight years later, Rice and Bush had come full circle, trying to find a solution along the lines taken by the Clinton administration.
Rice makes a credible case that the Israelis and Palestinians were closer to a final peace deal than is generally known. Yet, in the unfortunate practice of American politics, the incoming Obama administration upended the Bush administration’s policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After they took office, Obama administration officials spoke scornfully of Rice’s peace efforts — and now have so bungled the process that the two sides are even further apart.
Rice’s memoir is a reminder that the foreign-policy choices facing the United States are complex and difficult, with no easy solutions. A little less hubris at the beginning of an administration, with less of a desire to break with the past, might make the future less rocky. Rice has acquitted herself well in telling her side of the story; now she awaits the judgment of history.
Kessler, who writes The Fact Checker column for The Washington Post, is the author of “The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy.”