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

Rice’s ideas matter more today than they have at any point since she began her tenure as the chief foreign-policy adviser to a president whose vision of America’s role in the world underwent a dramatic change after the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001. Her influence is strengthened by the fact that she and President Bush are personally close. Rice frequently eats dinner with the Bushes on Sunday nights and sometimes watches movies with the first couple before they go to bed, an arrangement that, if set in New York or L.A., might be a worthwhile premise for a sitcom. Rice is also close to Laura Bush, who believes the secretary shares her protective attitude toward her husband, rather than pushing a separate agenda at the president’s expense.

“He’s had as much effect upon my foreign-policy views as I’ve had on his,” Rice told me. “It is in part, in large part, his unshakable belief in freedom. And his unshakable belief that human beings have not just a right to it, but they’re at their best when they have it.” Like the president, Rice is a regular churchgoer who embraced religious practice later in life—in Rice’s case, after returning from Washington, D.C., to her teaching job at Stanford University, where she served as provost from 1993 to ’99.

Rice’s detractors, and even some of her close friends, see her worldview, which is both intellectually coherent and heartfelt, as deterministic and lacking any real appreciation for the influence of local factors on big historical events. A common term for the core of her thought among her colleagues, past and present, is “the theology,” a reference to her bedrock faith in the likelihood, or inevitability, of progressive historical change. Her views have evolved since she witnessed firsthand the end of the Cold War.

“Back then, Condi Rice was much more of a realist,” one former senior Bush administration official told me. “Some of those traits are still there, but she’s gotten some religion. I don’t mean religion in the evangelical sense. I mean that view of life and optimism and larger forces, and the contest of good and evil, and the idea that time is on our side. It fits with a notion of historical inevitability, and a notion of American progress or a special mission in the world.”

Philip Zelikow, another friend and colleague from the Eastern European section at the NSC, is often described as the secretary’s “intellectual soul mate.” They have written a book together, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed, as well as academic papers about European history and the lessons of the Cold War. “She would put a heavier emphasis on circumstance than many would, because she is less prey to the conceit that ‘My choice can change history,’” Zelikow told me.

Rice’s writing and speeches share many of the optimistic assumptions of Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay “The End of History.” Where Rice sharply differs from Fukuyama is in her vision of a strong tension between a beneficent order of liberal states and the “transnational forces” that seek to tear down the global system. Her worldview is therefore trickier and more idiosyncratic than it first appears. “Democracy, for Secretary Rice, I think, and for them,” Zelikow says, speaking more generally of the administration, “is a universal safety valve for social conflict. And as they confront parts of the world in profound social and political crisis, they prescribe democracy.”

Toward the end of our first interview, I asked Rice whether the hopeful narrative of Arab countries holding free elections and moving forward toward democracy risks ignoring 500 years of tragic history in the Middle East.

“It’s not hopefulness,” she said crisply, interrupting me. “It’s a sense of what is possible, and optimism about the strength of democratic institutions.

“Let me ask you this,” she continued, wagging her head back and forth, taking pleasure in the clash of ideas. “Not that long ago—you said 500 years, but not that long ago, say, 1944, or maybe even 1946—would anybody have said that France and Germany would never go to war again? Anyone?”

Presented by

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

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