Why Her Dreams Crashed

By Fred Kaplan
Sunday, November 4, 2007

As Condoleezza Rice jets around the world, she must sometimes wonder where she's going. Over her three years as secretary of state, she has squandered great opportunities by putting faith and loyalty above her old worldview. The problem isn't just that she has swerved from the realism that propelled her to prominence; it's that the result has been a shambles.

Rice isn't used to failure, and most Americans aren't used to thinking of her as one. In Beltway wisdom, she's the star of President Bush's second-term team, someone who has employed smarts, sense and style to try to steer a wiser course in the world. But if she is now veering back to realism, it's after too long a detour into post-9/11 messianism. Rice remains one of the architects of a fantasy foreign policy, and her record as secretary of state gives little hope that she'll be able to reverse that verdict in the administration's final months.

The case against Condi starts with her dismal tenure as national security adviser in Bush's first term -- perhaps the worst in the office's history. Her main task was to coordinate policy, but she was outmaneuvered at every turn by the ruthless infighters around her, especially Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. So she focused on the job's other mandate: counseling the unschooled president on foreign affairs. As Bush's tutor in the 2000 campaign, she'd gained his trust, which became the basis of her power: When she spoke, everybody knew that she was speaking on Bush's behalf, not advancing her own agenda.

The State Department seemed a place where she could make the most of that asset. She would finally be a player, a Cabinet secretary with a budget, a bureaucracy and something her beleaguered predecessor, Gen. Colin L. Powell, never had: unfettered access to the commander in chief. At first, she did things that Bush had previously resisted -- reopened nuclear talks with Iran and North Korea, pushed a U.N. Security Council resolution on war crimes in Sudan, and (unlike Powell) traveled, a lot.

The early reviews were glowing. The media compared her to George Marshall, marveled at her "perfectionist drive" and parsed "the Condi doctrine." But she was only doing things that most secretaries of state do routinely. The substance of her views and the fruits of her globe-trotting weren't clear -- and still aren't.

The problem was that, in the course of counseling George W. Bush, she fell under his tutelage much more than vice versa. Instead of informing his instincts, she formalized them into doctrine -- and came to believe in it herself.

In his second inaugural address, Bush declared that his main goal would be to end tyranny and spread democracy around the world. For a few months, some wondered whether freedom might really be "on the march." Iraq held its first free elections; in Ukraine, protests and turmoil followed a rigged presidential vote; massive rallies in Beirut forced Syria to end its 30-year occupation of Lebanon. Rice took these as signs that the world was spinning on a new axis, and she took Bush's words as a mandate to spin it harder.

One month into Bush's second term, she canceled a trip to Egypt to protest President Hosni Mubarak's arrest of Ayman Nour, the leader of an opposition party. She rescheduled the trip for June, after Nour was released, and delivered a rousing speech at the American University in Cairo, demanding that Mubarak give his people liberty. "For 60 years," she said, "my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region . . . and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people." A "fully free and democratic world," she declared, is "inevitable."

Rice had spun 180 degrees from the positions she'd held for the previous 30 years.

In the mid-1970s, as a graduate student at the University of Denver, she'd been the star pupil of Josef Korbel (the father of former secretary of state Madeleine Albright). A Czech ¿migr¿, Korbel had witnessed the collapse of the world order between the 20th century's two great wars and concluded that keeping the peace required not laws or ideals but a stable balance of power.

In the late '80s, Brent Scowcroft, President George H.W. Bush's national security adviser, hired Rice onto his staff. A prot¿g¿ of Henry Kissinger, the ultimate realist, Scowcroft scorned the idea that morality should dominate foreign policy. While advising Bush's son during his 2000 presidential campaign, Rice remained firmly in this mold. In an article for Foreign Affairs magazine, she called "power politics" and "power balances" the key elements of national security.

Yet just five years later, she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, "the fundamental character of regimes matters more today than the international distribution of power." And: "Democracy is the only assurance of lasting peace and security between states, because it is the only guarantee of freedom and justice within states."

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