The Rice Capades

Between May and July 2001, the National Security Agency intercepted more than 30 private communications suggesting an imminent terrorist attack. In June, U.S. intelligence discovered that leading al-Qaeda operatives were vanishing from sight, possibly in preparation for a strike. By August, the CIA was reporting that Khalid al-Mindhar, Nawaf al-Hazmi, and other associates of Osama bin Laden had entered the United States. A month later, these men would participate in the September 11 hijackings.

U.S. counterterrorism specialists prepared a briefing in July 2001 for top government officials, warning, "We believe that [Osama bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties." Richard Clarke, then the White House's top counterterrorism official, made many requests to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for urgent cabinet-level meetings. Several top counterterrorism officials, a congressional commission that investigated 9-11 learned, "were so worried about an impending disaster ... that they considered resigning and going public with their concerns." CIA Director George Tenet "was around town literally pounding on desks saying that something is happening, this is an unprecedented level of threat information," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Congress.

Such a potential impending disaster might have seemed tailor-made for Rice. After all, she had been groomed by the Republican foreign-policy elite to become a top-flight decision-maker. And, since her time as a director for Soviet affairs on the first Bush administration's National Security Council (NSC), Rice had prided herself on her convictions that America should neither shy away from potential threats nor outlaw the use of significant force to combat our enemies. Furthermore, because of her experience on that NSC, Rice supposedly possessed the toughness and the willpower to push cabinet members toward a common policy that would defend America in a time of great danger. Indeed, since she had been named George W. Bush's top foreign-policy adviser during the 2000 presidential campaign, Rice had been featured in a series of fawning profiles in major newspapers and magazines, becoming the administration's major foreign-policy mouthpiece and frequently appearing on Sunday talk shows to provide detailed, eloquent presentations. She'd even inspired a fan club that promoted her presidential chances in 2008.

Unfortunately, as we now know from Clarke and other sources, Rice did little to address the gathering threat. In her recent testimony before the 9-11 commission, Rice admitted that the United States had not been on "war footing" against terrorism before September 11, and complained that the threats to the United States, during the summer of 2001, were too vague to warrant taking action. Indeed, Clarke was not allowed to brief the president during the summer of 2001, and Rice convened no meetings of cabinet principals that summer to deal with al-Qaeda terrorism -- just the kind of high-level attention that had helped prevent terrorist attacks on the eve of the 2000 millennium celebrations. "[T]here were other priorities," Rice told the commission.

In part, the failure to prevent the events of 9-11 was, like certain other key Bush administration foreign-policy failures, a result of Rice's personal flaws. Though the media have often portrayed the national-security adviser as a tough, decisive policy-maker, in reality Rice often has been a terrible mediator, creating fragmented, disunified policy. Ideally, a national-security adviser would firmly guide an internal administration debate toward an end point, present a policy recommendation to the president, and then force the administration to follow the president's decision. "You'd think the NSC would lay down the law," says one former official. "Condi did nothing ... . If there was a strong national-security adviser who'd instill discipline, that would have stopped ... debate."

But the Bush administration's policy disasters are not due merely to Rice's flaws as a traffic cop. They are a direct reflection of the flaws and blind spots of modern conservative foreign-policy thought. For nearly two decades, Condoleezza Rice was marinated in this thought, studying under mentors like George Bush Senior and Brent Scowcroft and alongside luminaries like Paul Wolfowitz. Conservatism's focus was chiefly on dangerous states and their dangerous weapons, like long-range missiles. Its preferred means of dealing with threats were military force and unilateral action, rather than State Department diplomacy, of which conservatives were suspicious. Both the focus and the means were unsuited for the globalized post-Cold War world, and horrifically so for the post-9-11 world. But it was tragic that the 1990s conservative establishment, which spent the decade rallying itself into a coherent force situated around key think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, developed a kind of all-or-nothing groupthink -- a stifling unity in which even mild dissenters are scourged as traitors.

When an administration born in the world of late 1980s and '90s conservatism -- a world of unyielding ideology formed in direct opposition to the Clintonites -- came to power, it failed to adapt to changes in the international environment, refusing to understand the ramifications of globalization and the growing danger of nonstate threats. And Rice has shown no propensity at all for independent thought. At a time when the president -- and, more importantly, the nation -- needed a skeptic in charge of the NSC, Rice showed unquestioning fealty to conservative groupthink, usually siding with the administration's most hawkish officials. She finds it easier to confront people like Clarke or Secretary of State Colin Powell, who advocate solutions contrary to 1990s conservatism -- multilateralism, or the recognition, as Clarke has said, that "the boundaries between domestic and foreign [security] have blurred" as nonstate actors have grown in power.

In addition, Rice has never really had the authority within the administration that a national-security adviser should. Before September 11, she allowed Rumsfeld and other hawkish officials to make missile defense and the dissolution of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty priorities, even as al-Qaeda's shadow loomed over New York and Washington. Meanwhile, Rice led cabinet-level meetings prior to 9-11 on a series of other state threats, such as Russia, her one area of actual expertise. And, even after September 11, the administration still has not focused seriously enough on the nonstate actors that threaten America, or diverged from its 19th-century, Metternichian worldview. As a result, America today is more hated around the world than at any time in decades, Americans are dying needlessly, and al-Qaeda is flexing more muscle than it did before 9-11. The failure of Condoleezza Rice, all but engineered to be a conservative icon, is the failure of the 1990s conservative establishment itself.

At an age when most people have yet to buy their first home, Condoleezza Rice had already held a series of prestigious positions in government and academia. A junior political-science professor at Stanford University in the 1980s, she impressed Scowcroft with her insights at a 1984 Stanford faculty seminar on arms control. Five years later, when Scowcroft became Bush Senior's national-security adviser, he made the precocious prof his director for Soviet affairs on the National Security Council. She was quickly promoted to senior director, and often served as a personal tutor to President Bush on the changing dynamics of the collapsing Soviet Union.

When Bush lost in 1992, Rice returned to Stanford, where she served as provost for six years. After leaving the school in 1999 to join Texas Governor George W. Bush's presidential campaign team, Rice grew close to the candidate. Bush reportedly liked Rice's ability to quickly synthesize foreign policy and present it to him in digestible amounts; the two also shared many interests, including football (Rice has said she wants to be NFL commissioner one day). And, as James Mann writes in his book Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, she became friendly with other leading conservatives who would ultimately serve as Bush's top advisers.

By then, Rice had already absorbed two decades of conservative wisdom. She was not yet a neoconservative, though. Like more traditional conservatives, she was mostly focused on great-power relations, and she seemed unwilling to risk the kind of destabilization that could result from neocons' democratization ideas.

Yet she, like the rest of the conservative establishment, had settled upon what Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, authors of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy, call the "hegemonist worldview." This worldview "looked no different ... than it had to Cardinal Richelieu or Prince von Metternich," Daalder and Lindsay wrote. "States sought to advance their own narrow interests," and military power -- even unilateral power -- was the best way of doing so. So, in a 2000 article in Foreign Affairs, Rice spent little time talking about terrorism, globalization, or other nonstate issues, instead advising America to focus on its relationship with major powers and ensure that the U.S. military was strong enough to fight for U.S. interests.

When Bush became president, Rice was thrown into an extremely contentious situation. The president named some of the most experienced bureaucratic infighters in recent history to positions at the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Complicating matters, Bush had picked a vice president who would be taking a more sizable role in foreign policy than any veep in history; none previous had joined NSC meetings with other cabinet principals. Rice had learned management from Scowcroft, whose style was to build consensus slowly. But it was now clear, as Rice might have sensed, that the Scowcroft model simply didn't fit anymore. "Positions were sometimes argued rather aggressively in [the first] Bush [administration], but disagreements were sorted out in private, not by public utterances that got out ahead of agreed policy," says a Bush Senior NSC staffer.

Yet from the beginning, Rice made moves that ended up encouraging just that sort of public bickering. In early 2001, she and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, decided to hand over more responsibility for policy-making to cabinet members. Rice slashed the NSC's size by 30 percent and even reportedly said that she didn't want anyone in Washington knowing her views on various policy issues. "Rice made the calculation that she couldn't go up against the titans" -- Cheney, Rumsfeld -- "in a big way," says one former official. Says another: "There was a feeling early on under Bush and Rice that the Clinton NSC had gotten too strong. Steve Hadley was overtly pushing people in meetings -- 'Look, we shouldn't be doing this, we need to devolve down.' But it wasn't really possible, because there was too much fighting in the interagency process."

Indeed, according to this former official, after Argentina's economy collapsed in a morass of debt in early 2001, Rice and Hadley tried to hand over Argentina policy-making to the Treasury Department. But there was combat between the Treasury Department and other agencies over the Argentine debt, and Rice allowed internal debate to continue, helping to poison the U.S.-Argentine relationship.

At the same time, when Rice did help mediate the infighting, it was almost always to further the conservative goals developed in the 1990s, such as obsessing over national missile defense and breaking U.S. ties to multilateral institutions like the International Criminal Court. On these issues, one former official remembers, Rice "restricted debate [to] limit the amount of information you get in ... . You're more likely to succumb to groupthink." As The Washington Post has reported, on September 11, Rice was to deliver a foreign-policy address at Johns Hopkins University on "the threats and problems of today and the day after" that would have promoted missile defense as the cornerstone of America's national-security strategy. As Clarke writes in his book, "[T]he daily NSC staff briefings were filled with detailed discussion about the ABM Treaty and other issues that I thought were vestigial Cold War concerns."

Similarly, before Bush's first visit to Europe in June 2001, Rice and other NSC staffers attended an interagency meeting to plan the trip. A Defense Department official arrived at the meeting with a "Rummygram" -- a concise, sharply worded Rumsfeld memo -- which showed that the Pentagon was already fighting the intra-administration battle to the death. The memo contained suggestions that, if implemented, would have radically changed U.S. policy in Europe, including pulling America back from NATO.

The same Bush staffers, Clarke has said, thought focusing on al-Qaeda was "rather odd." After all, al-Qaeda, which couldn't be dealt with on a state-to-state level, didn't fit in the conservatives' paradigm. But officials who criticized this conservative worldview were quickly ousted. Before September 11, Rice essentially demoted Clarke, perhaps the most knowledgeable person in the administration on al-Qaeda. Clinton-era National Security Adviser Sandy Berger "was effective in saying, 'We're heading down the wrong path. Let's reassess where we're going,'" says one former official who served under both Bill Clinton and Bush. Rice, it seems, could not do the same.

When the administration hasn't made the mistake of sticking to its guns with catastrophic consequences, it has made the opposite mistake of lurching all over the place, as it has with regard to China and Taiwan. The dance began in April of 2001, when a U.S. spy plane on a surveillance mission off the coast of southern China bumped into a Chinese plane and made an emergency landing in China, where authorities essentially held the pilots captive. The U.S. reaction to the incident was often contradictory, with some hawkish officials vowing that Washington would get its pilots and plane back without making any concessions, while others were counseling that America should express regret for the Chinese pilot's death. Ultimately, doves, led by Powell, seemed to prevail: Bush sent Chinese President Jiang Zemin a letter saying that the United States was very sorry for the Chinese pilot's death (but not apologizing for the crash itself). China released the pilots.

From there, policy-making on China only grew more muddled. Shelley Rigger, an expert on Taiwanese politics at Davidson University, says the Bush administration has sent mixed messages to both Beijing and Taipei on how strongly it backs Taiwan. Until 2003, hawks at the Defense Department and at America's de facto embassy for Taiwan, who had spent the 1990s at organizations like the American Enterprise Institute focusing on China as one of the gravest state threats to the United States, gained the upper hand. Rice, who seemed suspicious of State Department doves, did not stop the hawks. "Until [mid] 2002, the NSC basically allowed the Pentagon a long leash on Taiwan," says one U.S. official. Top Taiwanese defense officials were invited to the Pentagon, and Wolfowitz held meetings with Taiwanese leaders, a break from the past practice of having the Taiwanese meet only lower-ranking U.S. officials. Rice allowed the Pentagon to have a say on political issues as well, once the sole province of Foggy Bottom. Under Rice, says one former official, the Defense Department was "much more closely involved" in China and Taiwan policy details than in the past.

Emboldened by this tilt toward Taipei, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian decided to call a referendum, timed to the March 2004 presidential election in Taiwan, that would ask the Taiwanese whether China should renounce the use of force against the island. China reacted furiously, saying that a referendum could provoke war. Bush and Rice tried to scramble in the other direction. In the fall of 2003, with Bush's blessing, the National Security Council quietly sent Jim Moriarty, NSC senior director for Asian affairs, to Taipei, to ask Chen to scuttle the referendum.

Yet even as Rice was dispatching Moriarty, she could not keep administration hawks on the same page as Bush. At a dinner for Chen in New York in October 2003, Therese Shaheen, the hawkish former head of the de facto U.S. embassy for Taiwan, told the audience that Bush was Chen's "secret guardian angel," and in New York, Chen was allowed by U.S. officials to meet with supporters and the international media. (Because the United States officially recognizes only mainland China, previous Taiwanese presidents had usually been kept in airport transit hotels while in America.)

With the administration divided on policy, neither Taiwan nor China received a consistent message. According to Rigger, Chen focused on the anti-China statements from hawks and pushed forward with his referendum. The United States grew angrier, and one former U.S. official says Moriarty called a Taiwanese national-security adviser into his office and berated the man -- highly unusual behavior for an American official.

Ultimately, Bush had to inject himself directly into the policy debate, using a December 2003 bilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to tell reporters that the United States opposed the Taiwanese referendum. It was a slap in the face to Taipei, and Beijing reacted by replaying Bush's statement ad nauseam in the Chinese media. Embarrassed, Bush had to tack back again, publicly warning Beijing that his statement did not mean Washington would not continue supporting Taiwan. "The administration [still] doesn't speak with one voice on this," says Ken Lieberthal, who served on the National Security Council under Clinton. "Taiwan thinks the Department of Defense is their savior ... [and tries] to get the Department of Defense to carry their water," agrees one American official.

Ultimately, Chen was re-elected by a narrow margin, but his relationship with Washington was compromised by U.S. infighting that Rice did nothing to control -- and now the United States will have to deal with the Taiwanese leader for another term.

For a time, the 9-11 attacks shocked the administration into a more proactive, multilateral approach on terrorism. Rice became more assertive, functioning as an active participant who pushed issues to a close rather than simply a mediator.

But she still allowed the 1990s groupthink mentality and ignorance of nonstate actors to dominate. Right after 9-11, top administration hawks, including Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, tried to switch the focus from a nonstate threat -- al-Qaeda -- that had just killed almost 3,000 Americans to a state threat -- Iraq -- that could be more easily handled though military force, a linchpin of the hegemonist worldview. Rice did not prevent Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld from trying to focus attention on Saddam Hussein, even as Wolfowitz sent former CIA Director James Woolsey, a close friend, to London to investigate the crackpot theories of Laurie Mylroie, a terrorism specialist who believes that Hussein has had a role in many acts of terrorism on American soil, including September 11.

Ultimately, the preponderance of evidence implicating al-Qaeda in the 9-11 attacks became so overwhelming that it made no sense to even consider attacking any place other than Afghanistan. The war was fought well, and U.S.-led forces quickly overthrew the Taliban. But shortly afterward, the conservative ideology reasserted itself. Rumsfeld and other hawks, disdainful of multilateralism and using the military for reconstructing societies -- even broken societies that had bred terrorists -- scuttled the possibility of rescuing Afghanistan from failed-state status.

Rice, who in her 2000 Foreign Affairs piece had also denigrated the Clinton-era use of the military for peacekeeping, went along. Indeed, after 9-11, Rice allowed the United States to be pulled away from its European allies, who wanted to contribute to the war on terrorism but were distrusted by hawks at the Pentagon and other parts of the administration. Shortly after the war in Afghanistan, the Prospect has learned, some multilateralist administration officials wanted to support a NATO rapid-response force. One former official remembers, "A high defense official, when briefed on the idea by the NSC, paused and said, 'Don't do that -- if it existed, we'd have to use it.'" Chastened, the National Security Council allowed the idea to fester well into 2002, infuriating Europe and preventing NATO from taking a larger role in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, according to a former official, Rice allowed the Department of Defense to scuttle the funding of reconstruction projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Rumsfeld disdained. Worse, Flynt Leverett, a former NSC staffer, told The Washington Post that Arabic-speaking Special Forces and CIA officers, who had been effectively tracking Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders, were taken out of Afghanistan in March 2002 to begin preparing for a war in Iraq.

By the summer of 2002, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the White House was gunning for the state actor that, for more than a decade, had been central to conservatives' worldview. In the buildup to war with Iraq, Rice did give Powell a hearing. In the fall of 2002, she famously arranged for a private dinner at which the secretary of state counseled the president to use the United Nations to pressure Iraq. The dinner, as Daalder and Lindsay note, ultimately resulted in Bush using Powell's methods -- working through the UN, at first -- to achieve Cheney and Rumsfeld's aims of toppling Hussein.

But in many other respects, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld were allowed to dominate the NSC on Iraq. Rice "relished [an] opportunity to rein in the State Department ... . But there was less effort to rein in Rumsfeld" when the secretary of defense did not follow the president's policy instructions and tried to scuttle the peace process, says one observer close to several cabinet members. As Time magazine reported in April, Pentagon officials simply "skipped meetings of Rice's group that was planning for a postwar Iraq."

Again, on a central part of the conservative worldview -- attacking Iraq -- any dissenters were purged, and any sustained self-reflection inside the NSC seemed impossible. In the summer of 2002, Ben Miller, an NSC Iraq expert on loan from the CIA, was dismissed from the council, an acquaintance says, because he did not agree that Iraq was a gathering threat.

In speeches, Rice began linking Hussein's regime to al-Qaeda, and she mimicked Cheney's rhetoric about the threat of Iraq's supposed nuclear program with the now-infamous phrase, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

Greg Thielmann, former head of the proliferation-analysis office of the State Department's intelligence bureau believes that Rice ignored any evidence from the State Department that contradicted the administration's assessments of Hussein's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs.

On talk shows, Rice told the public that aluminum tubes that Iraq had been trying to purchase were used as centrifuges for enriching uranium, though many intelligence analysts strongly disputed this claim. In fact, shortly after the Iraq War ended, the United States found two suspicious mobile trailers in Iraq. Thielmann says the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency rushed out an intelligence white paper saying that the trailers had been used for making weapons of mass destruction -- without waiting for U.S experts to examine them closely or including the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the white-paper deliberations. These Winnebagos of mass destruction turned out to be unrelated to biological or chemical weapons production.

Worse, Rice did not guide the planning for postwar Iraq, which quickly descended into chaos and has lately morphed into something worse. In the fall of 2003, Rice finally tried to exert more control over the Iraq reconstruction process, with the White House announcing last October that she would take a more central role in approving decisions having to do with the U.S. occupation. The Washington Post quoted officials as saying that the change would allow Rice to "crack the whip." Of course, as the Post's Glenn Kessler and Peter Slevin noted, this October announcement was "met by puzzlement throughout the foreign-policy community," which wondered, "Isn't that what the national-security adviser is supposed to do in the first place?"

Today, speculation is mounting about whether Rice would stay on for a second Bush term. She has not ruled out leaving the administration, but has also been mentioned as a possible secretary of state, though friends have said she may want to take some time away from government. But while Rice may be tired of the interagency strife, she has not used her frustration to fix the NSC process, or to rein in the hawks. She has also refused to backtrack on many of her prewar claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, or Iraq's links to al-Qaeda. Powell and Rumsfeld continue to clash publicly. The administration remains divided over what role the United Nations should play in a post-U.S. occupation of Iraq. Rice continues to marginalize Foggy Bottom and, even today, focus her energies on the same priorities that obsessed conservatives in the 1990s. The White House has made little effort to try to understand some of the broader causes of terrorism, has focused on changing regimes in states that it believes foster terrorism, and has not spent enough time combating al-Qaeda's medieval theology with American democratic ideology (rather than just with force).

Then again, how could Rice have been intellectually capable of doing any different? She was the perfect child of 1990s conservatism, formed by the leaders of the movement while the conservatives were in exile. When the exiles stormed the barricades, they took their echo-chamber worldview with them into power. And while the media have often focused on the domestic implications of the Bush administration's conservatism -- its fealty to tax cuts above all else, its focus on big business at the expense of a truly level economic playing field -- it is this intellectual scandal, this failure to adapt to the world, that has ended up costing America the most.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement