Book review: Condoleezza Rice is thorough in ‘No Higher Honor’
By now, of course, the key details of former national security advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s “No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington” have already made it to public view. Among them: She clashed over policy with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi had an unnerving fixation on his “African princess,” which revealed itself in a bizarre private dinner in his kitchen. She regretted the timing of a vacation just as Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans.
But there’s a lot more to Rice’s memoir. In fact, with more than 700 pages of reminiscences, there’s an awful lot more than those headline moments, making “No Higher Honor” an exhausting walk in Rice’s shoes as, arguably, President George W. Bush’s most influential foreign policy advisor — a role she stepped into in August 1998, more than two years before the 2000 election, when Bush was governor of Texas.
And given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, policies of extreme renditions and the incarceration of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, combating North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions — well, it was a busy time.
It is a fact of American political life that after a presidential administration ends, key figures retire to write their versions of what they had seen and done. Each needs to be read with a bit of skepticism — legacy more than enlightenment often is the driving force. And Rice’s memoir is no different.
As an academic (and former Stanford University provost), Rice is ever conscious of both the history of the government offices she held, and of how future historians might view the Bush years. She notes that she was the 66th secretary of State, a title first held by Thomas Jefferson in an era in which the new U.S. Constitution counted Rice’s ancestors as only “three-fifths” of a citizen.
“Today’s headlines and history’s judgments are rarely the same,” she writes in the opening pages. “If you are too attentive to the former, you will most certainly not do the good hard work of securing the latter.”
Still, she piles on the details of countless moments in largely chronological order; the book at times reads like a narrated version of her daily calendar. Yet elsewhere she pens engaging behind-the-scenes accounts of various diplomatic showdowns, and the tidal changes in relations with such world leaders as Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
And race crops up. Even though her portfolio held U.S. foreign policy, she writes that “I’m still mad at myself” for misreading the symbolism of making a shopping and theater trip to New York City as Katrina approached, sure to lay waste to a city with a large African American population and becoming “the first in a spiral of negative events” to enfold the Bush administration.
"[I] sat there kicking myself for having been so tone-deaf,” Rice writes. “I wasn’t just the secretary of state with responsibility for foreign affairs; I was the highest-ranking black in the administration and a key advisor to the president. What had I been thinking?”
Coursing through nearly all of it is the legacy of the 9/11 terror attacks, which both shook the Bush administration and framed its foreign policy. Rice writes cogently of her fears that another attack might occur “on our watch,” and the sense of guilt for missing whatever clues might have been missed in the time before the planes were hijacked.
“No security issue ever looked quite the same again, and every day our overwhelming preoccupation was to prevent another attack,” she writes. “Our governmental institutions simply didn’t exist to deal with a threat of this kind.”
They were not easy decisions to make, or to sell. Often the administration took steps or issued statements oblivious to how they would play with the American public, or fellow world leaders.
For instance, before the speech in which Bush labeled North Korea, Iran and Iraq the “axis of evil,” Rice and other advisors had brief discussions about whether the wording was too strong, but then moved on only to be surprised by the reaction. That Rice didn’t pick up on the weight of linking those nations with the Axis powers of World War II — Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Japan — is hard to understand.
Similarly, Rice expresses surprise that the Bush policy of preemptive military action — attacking perceived enemies before they strike — was seen as controversial. And in several other occasions she blames the media for not understanding the nuances of issues and policies, leaving the White House on the defensive. She doesn’t seem to have contemplated the possibility that communication problems in the White House may have led to so many misunderstood messages.
And the “weapons of mass destruction” that most of the country felt was the reason for the Iraqi invasion was, Rice writes, only part of the motivation. Yet, in a different section, she says the Bush administration was seeking to use the threat of military force to underscore diplomatic efforts to get Saddam Hussein to give up his presumed WMD capabilities. Not a lot of separation between those two points. And the failure to find Hussein’s presumed stash remains key evidence to Bush’s critics that the public was manipulated to back the war.
Still, even read as a rationalization for policies, Rice ably puts the reader in the negotiating rooms on subjects including a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush’s policies toward limiting the spread of AIDS in Africa and the historic heft involved in accepting former Soviet republics into NATO — a jarring turn of events for Rice, whose academic expertise was Soviet-era international relations.
Ultimately, the book is a sharp reminder that some of the most vexing diplomatic problems of the world have a tendency to outlast the players. In fact, the three biggest policy headaches the Bush administration inherited — the Middle East, nuclear proliferation and terrorism — seem no closer to resolution now than when Rice first sat down with the future president to advise him on how to engage with the world.
Scott Martelle, an Irvine-based writer, is the author of “The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial.”
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