Interviews June 2007

Travels With Condi

David Samuels, author of "Grand Illusions," discusses his travels with Condoleezza Rice and her ambitious efforts to secure peace in the Middle East

Earlier in her career, Rice was a specialist on the former Soviet Union. It seems that the end of the Cold War had a tremendous impact on her global outlook. Do you think there’s a marked difference between politicians who came of age during that optimistic, fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall era and politicians—like Henry Kissinger—whose views were shaped by World War II and the Holocaust?

Also see:

Interviews: "A Conversation With Henry Kissinger"
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discusses Condoleezza Rice and American policy in the Middle East with author David Samuels.

Yes. For the small group of people who helped manage the end of the Cold War during the Administration of George H.W. Bush, I think that the innate American confidence and optimism about the future got a pretty big boost, there's no question about it. Imagine being 34 years old and seeing the Berlin Wall come down, and seeing East Germany become part of NATO. Imagine seeing all the captive nations of Eastern Europe turn into functioning democracies, almost overnight. For an American, meaning someone who hasn't been touched by history, and who believes that all problems will yield in response to a can-do attitude and the application of nearly infinite-seeming military and economic power, I think that experience confirmed some pretty deep lessons that we are all taught in grade school. Namely, that Americans are good people, with good ideas, and that democracy is the best system of government, and that in the end the naysayers are always wrong, and the optimists are always right.

You allude to Colin Powell as a kind of foil for Rice, a predecessor with a very different approach to foreign policy. What’s the most significant difference between these two secretaries of state?

Also see:

Interviews: "A Conversation With Colin Powell"
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell talks with author David Samuels about the current state of American diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Powell is an ex-military man who is cautious by nature and doesn’t take big ideas all that seriously. He was shaped by the long, slow, slog through Korea, Vietnam, the Carter years, the small-scale military adventures of the Reagan years, the managed disintegration of the Soviet empire, and the televised and methodical thrashing of Saddam in the first Gulf War. I don’t think he spends much time worrying about Muslim jihadists taking over the world’s oil supply and establishing a new caliphate. That’s paranoid, science fiction stuff.

Rice takes ideas much more seriously than Powell does. She is also much less practical in her approach to the use of military force and is much more driven by her vision of a grand clash of ideas that will determine the future of the world. I think Powell would say that the future of the world is being determined by Wal-Mart, and not by big ideas about Islam or democracy.

I hope that Powell is right, and I believe somewhere in my heart that he is right, but I can’t help also feeling that there is something terribly complacent about his approach. I think that Rice has been much more active on the diplomatic front than Powell was, in the sense that she visits more countries and meets with more foreign leaders. What she lacks is Powell’s ability to project a kind of soothing optimism that everything will turn out just fine. Powell is a guy you can imagine as the head of any large American company whose business plan is to keep smiling and maintain market share. Rice is more of a Silicon Valley type—a revolutionary with big ideas about the future that may or may not have any connection to reality. 

Of course, an even more crucial difference between Rice and Powell is that she has the full confidence of the President and is seen as speaking for him directly, which makes foreign leaders and diplomats pay close attention to every nuance of what she says. While Powell’s stature as a military leader and an American hero made him a welcome guest wherever he went, there was often some doubt about how much his views really mattered to the President, whether he was speaking for the President or for himself.

Did the Hamas victory last January have any discernable impact on the way Rice approaches international affairs?

Well, I think the Hamas victory definitely caused Rice to question the quality of the information she was receiving from the State Department people who told her that Fatah was a lock to win. I think it also shook her faith in the wisdom of pressing for elections everywhere in the Middle East. We haven’t heard much recently about the need for free and open elections in Egypt, for example. 

You interview a former Mossad head, Efraim Halevy, who seems deeply ambivalent about the role America is playing in Middle East politics. He seems to resent the fact that Israel can no longer take any action—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—without the approval and involvement of the United States. How have the Bush administration and Condoleezza Rice managed to tie Israel’s hands in this way—and why?

I think that the withdrawal from Gaza was a less a case of mean Uncle Sam tying Israel’s hands than something like the Brer Rabbit stories I learned on my father’s knee, where the Rabbit says, “Please, oh, please, don’t throw me into that briar patch!” The truth is that Israel was sick of occupying Gaza. The financial cost was too high, and the diplomatic cost was too high, even if you posit a complete lack of concern for the welfare of the Palestinian population.

When Israel looked around, however, there was no one on the Palestinian side to negotiate with, in the sense that no Palestinian leader would accept Gaza without also getting the West Bank and Jerusalem and the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants to settle inside Israel. That left Israel with a problem—who do you negotiate with, and how do you leave Gaza, without simply looking like you are abandoning your own people and running away?

So Rice and Sharon’s chief advisor, Dov Wiessglas, cooked up this clever scheme in which Israel would negotiate with America, and get concessions on paper from America, and wave the letters in the air, and then leave Gaza with some supposed dignity and political cover. What America got was that for the first time in history, the Israelis actually uprooted settlers and turned settlements over to the Palestinians.

The problem was that the Palestinian side was not interested in making the Gaza withdrawal work for Israel. No one turned the settlements into beachfront housing for Palestinian refugees. Instead, Hamas uses them as launching pads for rockets. So what looked like progress on paper was actually just a meaningless show that has made life a lot worse for everybody.

All of that makes Halevy angry. But what makes him particularly angry is the idea that by substituting the United States for the Arabs as Israel's main negotiating partner, Israel has agreed to become an active extension of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Everyone now knows that Israel won’t and indeed can’t do anything without the explicit knowledge and approval of the United States. So why bother talking to the Israelis at all? It is easy to see how, through this chain of reasoning, the Israelis lose control over their own foreign policy in a pretty drastic way. 

Early in the piece, you describe Rice as “an extreme personality.” What exactly do you mean by this?

I mean that you are not like her, and I am not like her. She is a person with a unique history, as we all are, and a unique collection of talents, many of which I wish I had. I make this point explicitly because I think there is a tendency to normalize her, in the sense that she is a high public official, and we all know what high public officials are like, or supposed to be like. But Condoleezza Rice has very little in common, say, with Warren Christopher, or Larry Summers, or Hank Paulson, or the usual run of talented white men who serve in Cabinet-level positions in the American government.

She is younger than most Cabinet Secretaries. Her background is different. Her interests are different. She has the capacity for doing a number of things at a very high level, any one of which would be pretty impressive in isolation. If I met a fifty year old woman who was in much better shape than I am, and who had a flamboyant love for fashion, and who dated two NFL All Pro wide receivers, I would think, wow, that’s a pretty unique person. I haven’t met anyone like her before. The same with a black woman with a Ph.D. who spoke fluent Russian and became the provost of Stanford University. The same with a woman who was a concert-level pianist but was also an expert on American foreign policy. The same with someone who worked at the NSC, became the National Security Advisor, and then became Secretary of State. 

Condoleezza Rice is all of those people, and she leads a physically punishing schedule that makes exceptional demands on her body and mind alike, at a particularly difficult time in our history. To be a black woman in America and to negotiate all those worlds at once is mind-blowing. I don’t have the slightest idea of what that’s like, other to say than it is beyond the realm of normal experience—it’s extreme.

Do those personal qualities—her love of sports, her fashion sense, her talent as a pianist—reflect anything about Rice’s approach as a politician and negotiator?

I think she has used all of these personal attributes to her advantage. I think they’ve been particularly helpful to her when making nice to Europe, where people still care about playing the piano. I heard more than one story of prominent intellectuals who have met with her and came away raving about how charming and wonderful she is, even though they deplore the Administration’s policies in Iraq or wherever. I think that Rice and her handlers have used her personal style and her talents in a very savvy way.

I would also say that Rice is a very charming and gracious person who does not appear to be driven by her ego. In that sense, she is very different than the politicians I have known and interviewed. She is a very capable public performer, but she is really more of a teacher or an administrator than a politician—someone whose public persona is designed as a means to transmit information to others, rather than as a way to elicit adulation, or loyalty, or love. She has very good manners, which are proper but informal, and which do a lot to put people at their ease, me included. They also create a sense of limits to the kinds of questions you might ask her. She seems least comfortable when people ask her about her feelings. At the same time, she is also an accomplished flirt. I see her as a character in a Jane Austen novel. 

You seem to like and respect the Secretary of State. Do you have confidence in her ability to bring stability to the Middle East?

No. I do not. I don’t think that America can bring stability to other places in the world, any more than we can bring democracy. We are not Prometheus, bringing the gift of fire to man. We are a nation, with a particular history and a system of government that has worked well for us, so far, despite some pretty big bumps along the road. To say anything more than that strikes me as a kind of insane arrogance for which the Gods will have their revenge.

I don’t believe for a minute that humanity is moving towards a future global order of liberal states that will practice American-style democracy, and in which Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Chinaman and Jew will live in harmony with their neighbors. I don’t think the future of the planet will look like Bethpage, Long Island, on a global scale. I think it’s more likely that someone will wake up tomorrow morning and turn his neighbor into cat food.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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