I was disappointed with David Samuels’s whitewashed profile of Condoleezza Rice (“Grand Illusions,” June Atlantic). Any discussion of Rice’s ability to advance peace in the Middle East must begin with an analysis of her role in the Iraq War. The job of the national- security adviser, the position Rice held during George W. Bush’s first term, is to referee the various foreign-policy arms of the U.S. government, and to balance the advice and interests of the Defense Department, the State Department, and the CIA. This places her at the very heart of the administration’s failure to plan for the post-invasion period. Rice either agreed with the philosophy and approach of the neoconservatives or had neither the competence nor the courage to stand up to them. Either way, her prior failures make her singularly unqualified to lead peacemaking efforts in the region today. It is not clear why Samuels does not deem this dismal track record relevant to his analysis.
San Francisco, Calif.
I appreciated David Samuels’s thoughtful piece on Condoleezza Rice. However, the panting descriptions of her “long, athletic legs” and “sophisticated clothes” as early as the third paragraph struck me as irrelevant. The emphasis Samuels places on her figure and dress disappointingly reminds the reader that what the press values in a woman, no matter her status, is her looks.
Samuels even calls Rice’s “bureaucratic side”—which turns out to be her political savvy and intellectual acumen—“boring.” To the contrary. Her junior Sovietologist credentials and her “ability to master briefing books” are more compelling to me than her “lemon-meringue- colored” suit.
David Samuels replies:
I am puzzled by Arline Welty’s objections to my brief acknowledgment of Condoleezza Rice’s “long, athletic legs” and “sophisticated clothes.” It is a fact that Rice has great legs, and she shows them off by wearing skirts that would be at home on a 25-year-old assistant editor at Vogue. The idea that the physical appearance of female public officials is somehow off-limits to journalistic description is a relic of ’70s-style equalitarian feminism that would insist on deliberate gender-blindness as the only conceivable road to equality. Rice is making a statement about who she is: a vital, attractive Western woman who works out religiously and is proud of her body and her taste in clothes—aspects of her public self that are no more and no less available for proper journalistic description than John Edwards’s silky mane and Barack Obama’s awesome abs.
As for the war in Iraq, there is plenty of blame to go around. While I stated that most observers regard Rice as one of the least-effective national-security advisers in history, it is silly to hold Rice—then a relatively junior member of the president’s foreign-policy team—primarily responsible for the many failures of American policy in Iraq, a policy that was largely shaped, often in competing directions, by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Powell, and other powerful senior officials.
The question of whether Rice is “qualified” to lead peacemaking efforts in the Middle East today is simply offensive. Of course she is. The likelihood of her diplomatic efforts’ succeeding rests not on her “qualifications” but on the larger philosophical and practical approach to the problems of the Middle East that she shares with President Bush. While I am sometimes tempted by the more hopeful-sounding aspects of their shared vision, I think that reality is simply not on their side.