Books: 'The Confidante'

Glenn Kessler
Author, "The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy"
Tuesday, September 4, 2007; 2:00 PM

"During Bush's second term, Secretary of State Rice has struggled to guide U.S. foreign policy in a time of turmoil and war. As national security advisor, Rice was directly involved in the invasion of Iraq, the missed opportunities with Iran and North Korea's nuclear breakout. Now, she must loosen the Gordian knots she helped tie. In this effort, Rice's special personal bond with Bush has emerged as her key asset - but possibly also her greatest weakness."

Washington Post Diplomacy Reporter Glenn Kessler was online Tuesday, Sept. 4 at 2 p.m. ET to examine the complex relationship between President Bush and Secretary of State Rice and her impacts on his second term and U.S. diplomacy.

Transformed By Her Bond With Bush (Post, Sept. 3)

The transcript follows.


Florida: As a recently retired FSO (with conservative political leanings since the Shultz period), I'm disappointed by what the Powell era was unable to accomplish (realizing White House restrictions) and extremely unimpressed by Rice era. Political ideology aside, I find Rice and Albright similar in that they appear to be merely placeholders rather than diplomatic heavyweights. What do U.S. diplomats and other USG think of Rice as the senior diplomat?

Glenn Kessler: I think Secretary Rice is impressive as a one-on-one diplomat -- certainly more so than Powell -- based on interviews I have had with foreign diplomats. Her ace in the hole is her close relationship with the president, which gives her added clout overseas in a way that neither Powell nor Albright had. But I don't think she is much loved by the people who work at the State Department. She is viewed as an aloof, distant boss who relies on a relatively small circle.


Boston: Do you believe Bush, Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld or any of the senior Bush administration figures involved in the decision to go to war in Iraq ever will have a "McNamara Moment" of regret and personal culpability later in life?

Glenn Kessler: I guess we will have to wait decades to find out. As I recall, McNamara didn't have that moment until long past retirement.


Arlington, Va.: In recent reports it was suggested that Elliott Abrams was actually the one setting the U.S. Middle East agenda (specifically the Israeli-Palestinian) and that he had more influence than Rice. Can you comment on the role and views of Abrams? Thanks.

Glenn Kessler: Elliott Abrams is an important adviser to President Bush and Secretary Rice; he travels with her on almost all her Middle East trips. She certainly values his judgment and opinions, but she also listens to other aides, especially Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch. But from my own reporting, Abrams' role often is overblown in some media accounts. He certainly does not have more influence than Rice. (Note: I describe his background and role in key events in my book.)


Arlington, Va.: Neither the book on Rice or the new book on Bush that was in yesterday's Post will have any real news, other than reinforcing the set-in-stone opinions. Do I believe Bush was upset when he found out that Karl Rove was involved in Valerie Wilson's outing? No. Do I believe that Bush consulted John Roberts regarding the selection of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court? No. Do I believe that Condi wanted to return to Stanford University? No. Yeah, they both gave the authors access -- which means they told the author what they wanted the author to know. Book Tells Of Dissent In Bush's Inner Circle (Post, Sept. 3)

Glenn Kessler: I can't speak to the other book, but I can tell you about my book. I spoke to Rice's friends and colleagues before I spoke to her, and they told me she was planning to return to California before Bush asked her to become Secretary of State. I kind of doubt she misled her friends. For much of the material in my book, I first tried to interview staff, friends and other diplomats before I discussed what I had learned with Rice -- that was one way to get a reality check on what I was being told. In some cases, I describe meetings based on information from officials from five countries, each of whom might have a different agenda than Rice. If you read my book, I assure you there are details in here that Rice did not want me to know.


Arlington, Va.: It almost seems as if Ms. Rice does not have much of a life outside of the White House. Have you found that to be the case, or is it just the opposite?

Glenn Kessler: She really only has Sunday afternoon to herself, playing piano or watching sports. She works very hard.


Munich, Germany: I've been wondering if Condoleezza Rice ever has talked about the trials and tribulations of being female and trying to talk Middle Eastern statesmen into making peace?

Glenn Kessler: She tends to shrug off either racial or sexist swipes, though I describe in "The Confidante" her difficult relationship with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Some diplomats felt there was a racist and sexist tinge in his dealings with her. I also mention in the book how the king of Saudi Arabia gave her an abaya -- a head-to-toe black covering required of women in Saudi Arabia -- as a gift on the very day she gave a speech calling for greater freedoms for women in the region. That was a cold splash of water on her day.


Baltimore: From my reading, it seems that Rice, despite her closeness with Bush, was ineffective as National Security Adviser -- unable to act as an effective counterweight to the vice president's influence on the President's decision-making and disinclined to master the levers of the national security apparatus. Is that a fair judgment? And if so, was her promotion to Secretary of State something of a "kick upstairs"?

Glenn Kessler: Yes, I write that she was one of the weakest national security advisors ever, and that the mistakes she made in that job have colored and limited the options she has in her current job. She didn't have a lot of Washington experience when Bush selected her as national security advisor and she certainly did not have the gravitas of Rumsfeld, Cheney and Powell. She is better suited for the job as Secretary of State, but her burden is much heavier because of what happened in the first term.


Washington: When it comes to Iran, who does Bush listen to more, Cheney or Rice? Do you think Rice is lobbying as hard for diplomacy as Cheney is for military action? And how can we tell who's winning?

Glenn Kessler: The president has given Rice a lot of running room on Iran. She has had the upper hand on policy for many months. But as the administration comes to a close, Bush may feel tempted to try to set back the Iranian nuclear program in one swift move so that he doesn't get blamed for leaving the problem behind for his successor.


Raleigh, N.C.: I believe Rice's tenure as NSA did real disservice to this country. Instead of being an impartial arbiter of strong opinions, she went with what she perceived as a stronger group -- Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz. In my humble opinion, she ranks as probably the worse NSA, ever since that post was created. What are your thoughts?

Glenn Kessler: Here's what I say in "The Confidante":

"Her options and opportunities as Secretary of State are limited by one deeply ironic fact: She was one of the weakest national security advisers in U.S. history.

Her inexperience and her mistakes in that job thus have shaped the world and colored the choices she must handle as Secretary of State. The invasion of Iraq, the missed opportunities with Iran, the breach in relations with Europe, the North Korea nuclear breakout, the creation of secret CIA prisons in Europe, the Arab anger at a perceived bias against the Palestinians -- all of these problems were the direct result of decisions she helped make in the White House. Now, as Secretary of State, she has tried mightily -- and with limited success -- to unravel the Gordian knots she tied in the first term."


Columbus, Ohio: You write about the media campaign to soften Rice's image including questions about presidential aspirations. Why would reporters agree to ask questions fed to them by her public relations guru, especially given that it's something her staff appeared to do over and over again? It seems that the reporters became part of the PR offensive by doing that.

Glenn Kessler: The question was suggested to the editorial page editor of a newspaper that supported the administration. That's a big difference from a reporter.


New York: How important was Condoleezza Rice's role in jump-starting the nuclear negotiations with North Korea? Did she face internal push-back from Vice President Cheney?

Glenn Kessler: Rice played a critical role in jump-starting the North Korean talks after North Korea tested the nuclear weapon. But as I write in "The Confidante," she made many mistakes as national security advisor and missed opportunities as Secretary of State that might have prevented that nuclear test. Cheney was less of an issue than you might think. Rice couldn't decide what camp she belong to in the debate.


Denver: Do you know what Rice plans to do at the end of the Bush administration? Does she plan to return to Stanford, or perhaps another university? Or go on the lucrative "rubber chicken" circuit?

Glenn Kessler: She says she will go back to Stanford. She certainly will give speeches and maybe write a book. But I bet she decides to run a sports team or perhaps even run for governor of California.


Arlington, Va.: There are many who think that the Israelis and Palestinians never will find a working solution and that the U.S. realizes this fact and that all the U.S. administration is trying to do is "manage" the conflict and buy time. Do you think Rice subscribes to this view, or is she really trying to come up with a long-lasting, stable solution to this conflict? Looking forward to reading your book.

Glenn Kessler: Glad to hear that!

Rice really wants to make progress on the Palestinian issue. She says that was one reason why she took the job as Secretary -- and she wanted to be sure President Bush was committed too. But her push for legislative elections that included Hamas have helped push that goal further into the future.


Washington: Regarding your comment that Rice and her Russian counterpart do not have the best rapport -- I don't think it's because Rice is a black female. Rice long has been considered a joke in Russia since her fiasco of an interview in Russia, when a journalist attempted to make the "world renowned" Russian expert speak Russian -- and she could not say two words.

Glenn Kessler: It is true that the Russian diplomats don't think much of her -- they think she is stuck in a time warp and doesn't understand contemporary Russia. But she does understand Russian very well; I have watched her at news conferences, and she does not wait for the translation. But she is self-conscious about speaking it. She still practices Russian once a week with a State Department translator.


Realityville, U.S.: I find myself troubled by your assertion today that Rice is more impressive one-on-one than Powell was, and the points made in yesterday's article that Rice has been fairly competent as Secretary of State and has escaped much criticism for Iraq. With all due respect, both those assertions seem hopelessly out of step with what I read in the newspapers every day. Powell, in a word, is gravitas. He was hamstrung by a White House that wanted to conduct foreign policy from the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Feith cabal. And it is incredulous to me to think that, somehow, Iraq is not an albatross that has, is and will continue to hang around the neck of Secretary Rice specifically, and American foreign policy generally.

Glenn Kessler: I'm simply reporting what foreign diplomats have said to me. Powell was genial in conversations and no one was sure whether he was speaking for the White House or seeking allies in his own policy battles. Rice, by contrast, is gracious but can be very tough in private -- and clearly has the support of the president. As for Iraq, the point made in the article was that public opinion polling shows most Americans give her a complete pass on Iraq. I note in the book that this is very odd given she was at the center of decision making and made the public case for war with dubious assertions.


New York: Mr. Kessler, I hope you have time for my late question. I was struck during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war at how reluctant Rice was to step in as peacemaker, instead referring to the need for a "durable peace." Did that concept ever produce results? What was it all about? Thanks.

Glenn Kessler: I devote an entire chapter to her handling of the Beirut war. She was reluctant to delve in at first, and many would argue that the final deal she got could have been achieved weeks earlier with many fewer dead.


Boston: What's Negroponte been up to since returning to State? Is he still grabbing lunch and a massage at the Met Club every day?

Glenn Kessler: Hmmm ... don't know about the latter, but Rice certainly has delegated a lot of work to him. She is focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian peace, Iran and North Korea.


Philadelphia: Isn't it late in the game for Rice to have any impact on foreign policy, and does the vice president actually cancel her out?

Glenn Kessler: It is getting late in the game, but Cheney's power really has shrunk in the second term.


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