Oct. 31 (Bloomberg) -- Condoleezza Rice has a lot in common with Henry A. Kissinger.
Both were academic superstars who became national-security advisers with strong ties to the president. Promoted to secretary of state, both were determined to win Middle East peace. And they were both at the center of administration tensions and intrigues.
Now, like Kissinger, Rice has written a memoir drenched in details of the daily work of diplomacy. Luckily for us, hers is one volume, not three, and it’s less self-serving, less mendacious, less monomaniacal than Kissinger’s. But, alas, also less revealing.
And not very satisfying. Not that secretaries of states are known for gripping narratives. Their memoirs are intended less to be devoured by the general reader than to be mined by scholars.
That will almost certainly be the case with “No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington,” the dutiful chronicle of a dutiful secretary of state. Almost no one will read it cover to cover. But no one should doubt that it includes every episode of Rice’s eight years with George W. Bush -- every meeting, every trip, every vacation interrupted by crisis, even the time she fell asleep watching “Meet the Parents” at Camp David with Bush and Tony Blair.
If you’re looking for juicy anecdotes, there are a few. Rice threatened to resign over a disagreement with White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez. She says Donald Rumsfeld was condescending and engaged in a “tirade” against her in the early days. Later, on a trip to Iraq, they clashed so often that “every public appearance with Don was a disaster,” she writes.
There were tensions with Dick Cheney, whom she blames for being the driving force behind the war in Iraq. She says the vice president and his staff “were absolutely convinced that Saddam was somehow culpable” in the Sept. 11 attacks, and that “the vice president latched on to every report of a meeting between Iraqi agents and al Qaeda affiliates.”
Her own feelings about Iraq are clear -- the war was prompted by desperation, not democracy: “The fact is, we invaded Iraq because we believed we had run out of other options.”
Indeed, she rejects as fantasy the idea that the war was a struggle to provide Iraqis with some kind of Jeffersonian notion of popular rule: “We did not go to Iraq to bring democracy any more than Roosevelt went to war against Hitler to democratize Germany, though that became American policy once the Nazis were defeated.”
Taking the Blame
She takes some of the blame for the way “isolated intelligence nuggets” were employed to create a narrative about weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist and offers an assessment of how intelligence was used, or more properly, misused: “Intelligence was an input but not a substitute for our strategic judgment about what (Saddam) was doing and, more important, what he might do.”
But as things go wrong in Iraq, it is Cheney who comes in for sideswipes. “I did not expect, as the vice president and others naively suggested, that the Iraqis would joyfully greet us as liberators,” she writes. The two also disagreed over secret detention and intelligence methods, she says.
Perhaps the most intriguing passages involve the White House fear that a radiological or nuclear attack on Washington might be imminent. The president agonized about telling some friends not to visit Washington without revealing the danger.
Overall this book is full of recitation and empty of reflection. Rice tells us many of the particulars about what the nation’s foreign-policy apparatus did in the years 2001 to 2009 but almost nothing about the practice of statecraft in the 21st century, a particularly striking omission given that she previously wrote a book on statecraft in Germany.
She is analytical -- particularly about Russia, Israel and India -- but not philosophical, though she ends the volume with one of the very few overarching assertions about her worldview: “There is both a moral case and a practical one for the proposition that no man, woman or child should live in tyranny.” Who can argue with that?
Rice recognizes her own triumph over the tyranny of race her forebears suffered, and this provides by far the most poignant passage in “No Higher Honor.”
As she took the oath of office in the Benjamin Franklin room at the State Department, she looked up at a portrait of the nation’s first diplomat and thought he would have been happy to see “this great-granddaughter of slaves and child of Jim Crow Birmingham pledging to defend the Constitution of the United States, which had infamously counted her ancestors ‘three- fifths’ of a man.”
Nicely put. Hers is a great story, even if she is not a great storyteller.
“No Higher Honor” is published by Crown (766 pages, $35). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)
--Editors: Laurie Muchnick, Jeffrey Burke.
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