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

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Statecraft and Stagecraft
Author David Samuels interviews former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, and George Schultz.

When the Secretary of State strides into a room, light bulbs flash and digital recorders slide in her direction. She speaks with an air of measured calm, holding her shoulders erect, anchoring her message in familiar notions of democracy and freedom. But behind Condoleezza Rice’s carefully controlled exterior is a vibrant character with a personal flair the State Department hasn’t seen in decades. As David Samuels relays in his June 2007 profile “Grand Illusions”:

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.

Even more striking than her lemon-meringue-colored suits or her taste for professional athletes is Rice’s bold optimism about the world’s future. Her colleagues call her outlook “the theology,” alluding to her unshakable faith that history is moving in a progressive direction. Centuries of bloodshed in the Middle East have not deterred her from promoting free elections in Palestine; years of setbacks in Iraq have done little to cloud her dream of a post-Saddam democracy. When pressed to justify her rosy worldview, she seeks precedents in history. “Not that long ago,” she tells Samuel,” say 1944, or maybe even 1946, would anybody have said that France and Germany would never go to war again? Anyone?”

More often than World War II, Rice cites the Cold War when defending her political views. From 1989 to 1991—the pivotal period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the U.S.S.R.—she oversaw Soviet and East European Affairs for the National Security Council. Later, when she returned to her teaching post at Stanford University, she remained a sought-after expert on Europe’s newly emerging democracies. Today, when Rice speaks of the Iraq War, she tends to frame it as the latest chapter in America’s ongoing story of triumph over oppression, with Islamic extremism filling the role Communism once played. In this, she departs from her predecessor, Colin Powell, who views extreme Muslim factions as a discordant threat rather than a monolithic enemy. Her philosophy also contrasts with that of Henry Kissinger, who does not see history as an upward arc and would opt for a far more gradual transition from dictatorship to democracy in Middle Eastern societies.

Despite these ideological differences with former Secretaries of State, Rice emerges from Samuels’s portrait as a sophisticated thinker who embodies many of the values Americans hold dear: faith, discipline, racial and gender equality, and a diverse palette of personal interests. She is loyal to the president but able to command respect in arenas where he does not. Her ideas are optimistic but they are not simple-minded; her press-perfect sound bites are informed by centuries of world history. In the end, though, Samuels worries that Rice’s lofty vision of an unfolding global drama—with America in the spotlight and time on our side—is “yet another illusion, whose price is likely to be high.”

Samuels has written two previous pieces for The Atlantic, including a recent story on Japanese suicide and a September 2005 profile of Yasir Arafat. We spoke in early April.

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

In reporting this story, you were invited to attend certain elite press events in Jerusalem and Ramallah. You also met with Rice in her private study. How did you get this special access?

Well, I don’t want to give away any of my super-secret reporter’s tricks for insinuating myself into situations where I don’t belong. But I will say that most of what I do involves writing letters and making phone calls and writing more letters and following those letters up with more phone calls and e-mails, until someone finally takes pity on me. I find that reporting generally consists of continuing to ask questions and bother people and not being embarrassed by the fact that no one really wants you around. If you go on bothering people long enough, it often becomes easier for them to talk to you once and get it over with then it does to keep saying no. Saying that you are reporting for The Atlantic Monthly doesn’t hurt, either.

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Interviews: "A Conversation With George Schultz"
George Schultz speaks with author David Samuels about American diplomacy in the Middle East, the Cold War, the global spread of market capitalism, and his relationship with Condoleezza Rice.

In this particular case, I submitted a request for an interview with Rice at the beginning of last year, and no one called me back for months. I finally interviewed her for the first time in her study in August, and then it took another half-year of waiting around and showing up at the UN in September and flying out to California to interview [former Secretary of State] George Schultz until someone became convinced that I was actually writing a piece.

Then I convinced them that I was going to show up in Jerusalem in February, at which point they decided it would be a good idea to be nice to me. Once I had spent all that time with Rice, I think it seemed silly not to give me a second interview so I could update my quotes from the first interview. So we met one more time in her study. Before that happened, I think I traveled back and forth to Washington five times, because the interview kept getting canceled. Each time it got canceled, I got to interview another one of her aides in depth, as a consolation prize. So we’re talking about a process from start to finish that took about a year.

Your article offers an unusual meta-perspective on the relationship between the politicians and the press. Instead of making your role transparent as most journalists do, you spend a lot of this piece describing what it’s like to sit for hours waiting for the Secretary of State to appear and leave with nothing but staged photos and tired old sound bites. What made you decide to report on the actual process of reporting?

I tend to concentrate on the little details of how the Secretary of State uses her hands when she speaks to reporters, or the way the flags are set up, or the way the photographers charge into a room to get the one iconic shot of three politicians holding hands, because those are the things that I actually see in front of me, and that you would see if you were in my shoes. I’m a great believer in the idea that if you put enough pressure on the little details that most reporters take for granted, they will reveal the inner meaning of events that all the self-important blather from politicians and reporters alike tends to obscure.

In general, I think it’s fair to say that reporters pretend to know a lot more than they do and spend most of their time advancing story lines that are created by politicians, or editors, or by some vague consensus of what right-thinking people have decided is the right way to frame a certain question. This is not because reporters are lazy or stupid, although some of us are. As a reporter working a beat, you have very little time to stop and think big-picture thoughts about whether the story lines that everyone uses every day actually explain what you see in front of you. You have other things on your mind. You need to get into the press conference, call your sources, get your quotes, write your lede, talk to the guy on the desk, and get your story in by 6 pm or else you’ll be shut out of the paper. It’s impossible to get up every morning and re-invent the wheel.

I should also say that there are some very bright and very talented reporters who cover the Secretary of State, and who know her much better than I do. I found that the most informative and insightful stuff about Rice came from Glenn Kessler, who covers the State Department for the Washington Post. I owe a number of key insights about Rice to Glenn, who pointed me to sources and people that I would have never found on my own. Glenn has a book about Rice called The Confidante which is coming out in September, and which contains all the real inside dope that he wouldn’t give to me.

You make several references to Rice’s belief in the primacy of “underlying historical forces.” Could you explain what this means to Rice and how it influences her Middle East philosophy?

The fact that Rice comes from a serious academic background means that she sees the world, to some degree at least, the way an academic would, and not the way an oil lawyer from Houston might, for example. Most academics these days would be aghast if you told them that Joseph Stalin alone was responsible for the Soviet Union turning out the way it did, or that Napoleon conquered Europe because he was a genius. Instead, they would explain all the ideological and social and historical factors that led to Stalin playing the role that he did, which should properly be understood against the background of five hundred years of Russian history. By the time they were done explaining, you’d probably come to the conclusion that history is much bigger than any one man.

When Rice talks about “underlying historical forces,” what she means is that the decisions that we make in the present, and the conditions that in turn shape our decisions, are themselves the products of much deeper historical currents, which emerge from the deepest wellsprings of a people’s history and culture. What this means is that our decisions don’t matter as much as we like to think they do, and that it often takes a long time to truly know whether our decisions are right or wrong.

I’d have to say that I am very sympathetic to the way Rice thinks, especially when you start to look hard at the alternatives. For example, there are plenty of people who overstate the case about how the Bush Administration was rude to our allies in Europe, which made them hate us, or how easy it would be to wake up tomorrow and convince the Iranians that they don’t want nuclear weapons, simply by saying that we want to be friends. For people who believe that history isn’t very important, it is easy to see major shifts in the temperature of the world, or the way people understand the world, as passing whims that a clever dealmaker can erase tomorrow. I think that Rice rightly believes that point of view is nonsense. It’s hopelessly condescending to people whose histories and ideas and desires might clash violently with ours, and who actually believe that they will win. I’d be very worried right now if the Secretary of State believed that the only things standing between us and a deal with Iran were good manners or wearing a colorful headscarf when she visited the Middle East.

At the same time, there is also something quite alarming about the idea of a chief diplomat who, deep down, believes that diplomacy is nonsense, or, more accurately, a way of managing a flow of events that is largely beyond the control of human actors. The danger of the historical perspective is that you stop paying attention to the details, because in the end the grand sweep of history will take care of the details. Your job is simply to set big events in motion and then manage the visuals. And I think that attitude is very dangerous, and I do think that is something we have seen repeatedly from this Administration.

You mention that Rice, like the president, is a regular churchgoer. This is not uncommon in high levels of American government—even Clinton and Gore were religious Christians—but in Rice’s case, you seem to feel that her tendency toward religious faith is directly related to her “view of life and optimism and larger forces.” Can you discuss this a bit more?

As a person who participates in regular religious observance, and who believes in one God, a God who truly loves mankind but suffers from some very notable lapses of attention, I do think that religious people have access to a kind of optimism, a faith in the future, that secular people do not fully understand. That’s why, for example, religious people have more children on average than secular people do. It’s also why religious people are sometimes capable of subordinating their happiness in the moment to the demands of their faith, and why religious people are capable of sacrificing for their faith in ways that secular people find completely horrifying or misguided.

It would be entirely presumptuous of me to comment on Condoleezza Rice’s religious life after interviewing her twice in her study and watching her at a handful of public events. But I do feel that the idea that history has a purpose, and that it is moving in a particular direction, fits easily with accustomed ways of thinking for many religious people, and is hard for many secular people to understand. The gift of this kind of optimism is that it allows you to truly believe that things can change, and to act on those beliefs, despite the fact that everyone around you insists that you are wrong. And sometimes things do change.

The danger of that, of course, is that history may not be moving in any particular direction. We may simply be caught on a wheel of pain, the way that the Buddhists imagine.

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?

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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?

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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.