CURRENT AFFAIRS | FOREIGN POLICY
What Became of the Realist?
Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of The Bush Legacy
By Glenn Kessler
St. Martin's. 288 pp. $25.95
Just two years ago, Dick Morris wrote a book arguing that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was the only Republican who could beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential race. That feels like a long time ago.
Rice never was going to run for president. But her star has slowly descended as she has struggled with intractable foreign policy problems in the unforgiving international environment created by the Iraq war. Glenn Kessler, the indefatigable diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, was with Rice for the ride -- literally. She has been the most traveled secretary of state since Henry Kissinger, and in The Confidante, Kessler recounts her most eventful trips seemingly hour-by-hour.
A former Stanford academic who is like a "sister" (his word) to President Bush, the talented, energetic and beautiful Rice was a sensation when she became secretary of state, and not just among excitable political pundits. An African American woman who grew up in the segregated South, she seemed an ideal representative of America at a time when it was plugging for democratic transformation.
When she traveled to Paris during her inaugural trip as secretary of state, Le Figaro said she had "put the 'la' back in the new diplomacy." She caused a stir when she wore an all-black outfit and knee-high black boots to visit a U.S. airbase in Germany. When she later asked a press aide what the fuss was all about, he hesitantly said, referring to the boots, "Men like these." She leaned over to him and whispered, "We know that."
The buzz would dissipate. Rice's trajectory can be seen in her dealings with Egypt. One of her first acts was to cancel a visit to Cairo over the jailing of opposition figure Ayman Nour. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised competitive elections, Nour was freed, and for a moment it seemed the administration's push for democracy in the Middle East was bearing immediate fruit. You don't have to be a neo-con to enjoy reading about Egypt's slick foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, struggling to find his footing with Rice, who seemed to "scare" him, according to Kessler. Alas, he got the last laugh. He once begged Rice not to mention Nour in press conferences; by 2006 -- with the presidential election safely stolen and Nour back in jail -- he could tweak her when she assured reporters that she always brought up Nour's case with Egyptian officials. "You didn't raise it today," a gleeful Aboul Gheit remarked.
Long a foreign policy "realist," Rice wrote an article for Foreign Affairs in 2000 calling for clear-eyed pursuit of the national interest. "To be sure, there is nothing wrong with doing something that benefits all humanity," she wrote, "but that is, in a sense, a second-order effect."
After Sept. 11, 2001, however, Rice bought fully into Bush's freedom agenda. Kessler engages in some unconvincing psychologizing to explain her transformation, suggesting she had reached into her deep, Calvinist faith in a moment of crisis. But the terror attack alone seems sufficient cause to explain her change. It convinced her, as she likes to say, that the United States had pursued stability in the Middle East at the expense of democracy, and achieved neither.
Kessler rightly blames Rice for failing as national security adviser to impose coherence on the administration's warring factions in Bush's first term. He calls her "one of the weakest national security advisers in U.S. history" and says her mistakes in that job -- including those related to the Iraq war -- created or exacerbated many of the challenges she has faced as secretary of state. Yet, in an administration known for its rigidity, she's been flexible, trying more conciliatory approaches to the North Korean and Iranian nuclear crises. The impression often left by this book is of someone scouring the globe, hoping something will turn up.
Kessler is a skilled reporter and clean writer. He is critical of Rice but always fair-minded. He divides his book essentially into case studies of key issues, from Darfur, to Lebanon, to North Korea. The organization means the book lacks a strong narrative drive, but Kessler has excellent sources, and the diplomatic tick-tock is illuminating. At times, though, The Confidante is a bit of a notebook dump. We learn more about the mood, accommodations and strategizing of Kessler's fellow reporters than most readers will care to know. He includes some memorable details -- such as a friend of Rice zinging a quarter at her backside, to demonstrate how firm it was, as she danced at a private party -- and many forgettable ones.
The profoundest limitation of this kind of hyper-current book is that it is too close to events for much perspective. Over time, we will know how the administration's stalled push for an opening in the Middle East ultimately fared. Both Bush and Rice comfort themselves with comparisons to Truman and his secretary of state Dean Acheson -- author of the classic memoir Present at the Creation -- who were reviled in office but eventually honored.
That kind of vindication, if it ever comes, seems far off. Rice has been very much present, but what exactly has been created we still don't know. *
Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.