Grand Illusions

With Rumsfeld and Powell gone, and Cheney’s power diminished, this is Condoleezza Rice’s moment. Can she salvage America’s standing in the Middle East—and defuse the threat of a nuclear Iran? Behind the curtain in Washington and Jerusalem with the secretary of state
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Interviews: "Travels With Condi"
David Samuels, author of "Grand Illusions," discusses his travels accompanying Condoleezza Rice and her ambitious efforts to secure peace in the Middle East.

Statecraft and Stagecraft
In the course of his reporting for this piece, author David Samuels interviewed former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, and George Schultz. Read excerpts from those discussions.

I met Condoleezza Rice for the first time in August of last year, at the height of the recent war in Lebanon. Having failed to get the French to agree to a UN resolution that would send peacekeepers to disarm Hezbollah, and having failed to get Israel to give up the disputed Shebaa Farms area (she had hoped to hand the Sinoira government a consolation prize for the destruction in Beirut), the secretary of state, who is usually vibrant and gracious, looked tired and wan. Rice ushered me into her study, past portraits of her Cold War heroes, Dean Acheson and George Marshall. Impeccably dressed, in a lemon-meringue-colored wool suit, she settled into a corner of a creamy white settee and pointed me toward a chair. Then I asked our country’s second-ranking sports nut why Americans play baseball and football, while the rest of the world prefers soccer.

“I’m not going there!” Rice said, with a laugh that betrayed a bit of discomfort at having been asked such a weird question. Her curiosity got the better of her, and she began to muse. “I think the explanation for why we play sports that are not played in other places, and why perhaps we don’t take to the sports that are played in other places, is this is a big continental-sized country,” she said, curling up against the arm of the sofa. “If you look at Australia, they play Australian-rules football, which nobody else in the world plays.”

Rice’s obsession with sports makes it easier for her to function in a world of men who may not be immediately comfortable taking direction from a younger black woman, but who will respect anyone who can name the winning quarterback for every Super Bowl off the top of her head. Rice works out regularly with a trainer, has dated NFL All-Pro receivers Rick Upchurch and Gene Washington, is a talented classical pianist, and wears sophisticated clothes that show off her long, athletic legs, facts that may seem trivial, but actually provide valuable clues to an underlying truth about the secretary of state: She is an extreme personality who dresses with a degree of flamboyance that hasn’t been seen in the State Department since the high-collar days of John Hay.

Which is not to say that she doesn’t have a bureaucratic, boring side. Ten years before she became the president’s chief foreign-policy adviser, she was a junior Sovietologist on his father’s National Security Council, and she retains the ability to master briefing books and speak in bullet points that makes a good staff person invaluable. When she talks about big ideas and important moments in history, her expression becomes solemn and fixed, and she leans forward, holding her shoulders back a little as she speaks.

“I think we are just at the beginning of great historical flux, and I think it’s even much more dramatic and much more profound than I thought in 2000,” Rice says, when I mention an article she published that year in Foreign Affairs, laying out her vision of a global democratic future guaranteed by the United States. Most articles about foreign policy are op-ed pieces masquerading as political philosophy, and Rice’s is no exception. But it does describe a coherent view of the world that places a great deal of emphasis on the determined exercise of military and diplomatic power and has little in common with the humble, neo-isolationist platform on which George W. Bush ran for president. The world as Rice understands it is both a welcoming and a dangerous place, in which America plays a special role. The sunny and scary parts of her worldview are woven tightly together.

“There has been a triumph of the broad institutional consensus about what it takes to be effective and prosperous or successful,” Rice says, pointing to the interest that all states share in obtaining access to markets and ensuring domestic stability. Unlike Donald Rumsfeld’s finger- wagging, Rat Pack–era version of realpolitik, or Dick Cheney’s paranoia about mushroom clouds and sleeper cells, Rice’s views are the kind of optimistic stuff that mothers might wish their children were being taught in school. Threats to the emerging global order of liberal states come from what Rice calls “transnational forces,” “violent extremists,” or sometimes “terrorists,” locutions that share in common a studied avoidance of the word “Islam.”

“When we liberated Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan, we found Nigerians and Chinese and Malay and American people who essentially deny nationality in favor of a philosophy—a violent extremist philosophy to which they are committed,” she says. “It reminds me in some ways of the way that ‘Workers of the world, unite!’—Karl Marx,” she adds helpfully “—was a slogan that meant that an American worker had more in common with a German worker than an American worker would have with the American leadership.” When she is thinking hard about something, she furrows her wide brow and scrunches up her mouth in an unselfconscious way that suggests a schoolgirl determined to ace a test.

Questions about Rice from policy types usually begin with the all-important matter of whether she is an “idealist” or a “realist,” a distinction that she herself regards as academic and meaningless. As she wrote in her Foreign Affairs article, “There are those who would draw a sharp line between power politics and a principled foreign policy based on values. This polarized view—you are either a realist or devoted to norms and values—may be just fine in academic debate, but it is a disaster for American foreign policy. American values are universal.”

A related question is whether Rice is a “neocon,” a term originally coined to describe a tight-knit group of mostly Jewish intellectuals in New York City who split from the doctrinaire left in the 1960s on a series of issues, beginning with whether or not the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state. The current usage of the term, while popular, is quite misleading, because it flattens the distinction between those who believe in the aggressive use of American military force and those who believe that the United States should champion democracy. In doing so, it imposes a retroactive coherence on administration policies that evolved on the fly, as the outcome of battles between opposing bureaucrats, none of whom got exactly what they wanted. In Iraq, some, like Vice President Cheney, appear to have been eager to depose Saddam Hussein without caring much about what system of government might replace him. Others, like former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, cared passionately about bringing democracy to the Middle East. A third group, which includes Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush, supported the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a menace, and then, only after that decision was made, supported the idea of building a democracy instead of installing a new dictator and going home.

Rice’s role as national-security adviser during Bush’s first term was ostensibly to referee the clash of opinions among what some White House staff called the “bull elephants”—Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Colin Powell. “I didn’t know that she had any strong views,” says Richard Armitage, Powell’s deputy, who did not think highly of her performance. “I mean, she was an expert in one country that no longer exists.”

And yet, when the dust settled late last year, those who had dismissed Rice as a glorified appointments secretary were in for a surprise. With Powell and Rumsfeld gone, and Cheney’s influence constrained by aggressive legal proceedings against his chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the secretary of state has emerged as the foreign-policy linchpin of an administration that is largely staffed and run by colleagues from her days in Brent Scowcroft’s NSC during the administration of George H. W. Bush. Stephen Hadley, who worked with Rice on German unification between 1989 and 1991, has succeeded her as national-security adviser. Rumsfeld, Rice’s leading bureaucratic rival (a colleague described their relationship as that of “an older uncle and a headstrong niece”), has been replaced by Robert Gates, Scowcroft’s deputy at the NSC.

With Rice, Gates, and Hadley in place at State, Defense, and the NSC, it seems clear that President Bush has embraced at least one part of his father’s legacy—not the more cautious, deal-making side exemplified by Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker, but the side embodied by the younger staffers who urged the first President Bush to take clear, decisive action to end the Cold War, a course that many of their elders believed was unwise, if not impossible.

One of Rice’s closest colleagues at the State Department, Nicholas Burns, a handsome, soft-spoken Boston Red Sox fan, was her assistant at the NSC. “She was allowed to hire one person. That was me,” Burns remembers. “She was 34, and I was 33. We were in these positions of great responsibility. It was a very exciting and historically significant time.”

Burns believes that Rice’s distinct management style was born of her experience with fast-moving events at the end of the Cold War. She holds daily strategy meetings in the morning and evening, and keeps in constant phone contact with the “issues managers” she has appointed to make and implement her big-picture decisions. For Iran and India, the issue manager is Burns. For Iraq, it is Rice’s new deputy, John Negroponte. For Korea, it is Christopher Hill, who recently concluded a disarmament deal with North Korea that was roundly criticized by hard-liners, including Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams, the tight-lipped poster boy for neoconservative-haters inside and outside the administration. Rice’s success in getting the president to sign on to the North Korea deal without giving Abrams and other opponents time to object, and without allowing other Cabinet departments and agencies the opportunity to review the terms, is a sign of how far the bureaucratic balance has shifted in her favor.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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