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

I met Condoleezza Rice for the last time in the middle of March, three weeks after her return from Berlin. The snow had fallen all morning outside the tall windows of her study, blanketing the city, and this had put her in a reflective mood. The trip was fairly intense, she says, curling her legs underneath her on the sofa. “The national unity government, the trilateral with Abbas and Olmert, and all that.” I ask her what she makes of the expectation that she will negotiate a grand bargain that will solve the problems of the Middle East.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the region as a whole is in the midst of a big transformation, and therefore you have these problems that are in a sense linked,” she says. “But I think it would be a mistake to say, ‘Oh, we have to have a huge omnibus solution to this.’ I don’t think you’ll get anywhere, because the histories of these problems, the circumstances, the actors, are very different.”

When I ask her to clarify this answer, she says carefully that “as a practical matter of diplomacy,” it would be hard to cut a deal that would persuade Iran to renounce its nuclear ambitions, and would stabilize Iraq, guarantee Israel’s security, and create a functioning Palestinian state.

While some of America’s allies may not be models of democratic practice, she still believes that democracy is the solution to many of the problems of the Middle East. Elections aren’t the only answer, she concedes, but without them, “it’s kind of hard to imagine how else people get to exercise their preferences for who will govern them.” When I ask Rice to explain the administration’s policy of putting money and guns on the streets of Gaza to destabilize the elected Hamas government, she demurs.

“No, it’s not putting money and equipment—it is the professionalization and the training and equipping of Palestinian forces,” she says.

“But it’s both, isn’t it?” I ask.

“No, because the state—well, they happen to go together,” she finally admits. “You don’t train and equip a force without …”

“Without putting guns on the street?” I suggest.

“But the fact is, it’s not just putting guns on the street,” she says. “There’s a very careful plan that General Dayton, but also Canadians, Brits, others who are working on this, for the professionalization of those forces, so that they’re actually able to defend the Palestinian people, so that they’re actually able to fight terrorism. That’s the goal.”

A few days earlier, I had been to see Henry Kissinger in his offices on Park Avenue, where, at 83 years old, he still reports regularly for work and occasionally offers counsel to the president and the vice president. Kissinger’s career as an academic, and journey from national-security adviser to secretary of state, suggests some interesting parallels with Rice’s own trajectory, including the ability to win and keep the trust of an isolated president. America’s most famous and reviled diplomat doesn’t believe that history is a story of human progress. In part this may be because he is a European Jew who lived through Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and fled with his parents to America as the world they had grown up in destroyed itself and half of Europe. Kissinger left me with the strong impression that he considered Rice’s insistence on holding elections in Iraq and in the rest of the Middle East to be naive and impractical.

“Whom could they vote for after 40 years of Saddam?” he asked. “The people they were closest to, which were their ethnic or religious group. That then confirmed the divisions, it did not create a consensus.” On my right, in silver picture frames, was a cozy selection of world leaders like Nelson Mandela and Helmut Kohl, smiling at Kissinger. Rather than look to the model of American democracy, he said, developing nations might emulate the more gradual evolutions of countries like Chile, South Korea, and Singapore. “We’re applying the experiences of parliamentary-type democracy, 19th-century bourgeois democracy, to areas that have a much more complicated history, or a much different history,” Kissinger said.

I asked him why the answers we draw from our own historical experience so often prove destructive to other countries. He rested his famous jowls on the collar of his blue shirt and began to rumble. “We’ve never had to deal with contingent issues in the sense that our problems have had absolute answers, or at least answers we considered absolute,” he said. “So with very little preparation, most of our problems have proved soluble. They have always yielded to the application of resources and ingenuity, and to finite time scales. Much of this is not true in the rest of the world.”

When I describe my conversation with Kissinger to Rice, she firmly rejects the idea that America might look to “soft authoritarian” regimes as a model for peaceful development. “I still believe that, however complex and sometimes chaotic democratic processes and democracies are, they’re still preferable,” she says with a vigorous nod. “If you start settling for the way stations along the way, that’s a problem.” Chileans and South Koreans don’t see the authoritarian periods in their recent histories as part of a transition to democracy, she adds. “They see those as periods of time that had to be overcome.”

By historical standards, it is too early to tell whether the big choices that Rice and the president have made will turn out right or wrong, and whether the Middle East will embrace democracy. What seems clear is that much of the damage we have done to ourselves and to our friends was avoidable. The prospect of a grand bargain, one that will rejigger a complicated region of the world to America’s satisfaction, seems like yet another illusion, whose price is likely to be high.

We talk for a while about other things, until Rice arrives at the story with which she wants to conclude our last interview.

“When we arrived in Berlin, there was a piano in my suite,” she remembers. “And I thought, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice, there’s a piano.’ And on the music stand, there was a book of Brahms’s piano music.”

The sheet music was for the second intermezzo of Brahms’s Opus 118, which she played at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference last July. It’s a sad and lovely piece, which Rice calls “reflective.” The image of the secretary of state playing the piano is useful in interviews because it suggests discipline. But it is also true that she has a deep feeling for music, and plays well.

“I thought, ‘Well, that’s pretty nice.’ So I sat down. I played for probably an hour. And everything just melts away.”

Presented by

David Samuels’s “In a Ruined Country,” a profile of Yasir Arafat, appeared in September 2005.

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