The powerful Armenian American lobby has for years pressured Congress to pass a resolution branding the Ottoman Empire’s mass killings of Armenians starting in 1915 as genocide. There are many historical interpretations of what happened but it was clearly a brutal, ethnically motivated massacre. Still, the killings did occur in 1915.. . .
My first experience with this problem had come in 1991, when I was working in the White House under George H. W. Bush. It had fallen to me, as acting special assistant for European affairs, to mobilize an effort to defeat the resolution in the House of Representatives. The Turks, who had been essential in the first Gulf War effort, were outraged at the prospect of being branded for an event that had taken place almost a century before —under the Ottomans!
Back then I had succeeded in my assigned task, and in the years that followed every U.S. president and secretary of state had tried to fight off the dreaded Armenian genocide resolution. It was not that anyone denied the awful events or the tragic deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Armenians. But it was a matter for historians—not politicians—to decide how best to label what had occurred. Now, in 2007, in the midst of tensions on the Turkish-Iraqi border and with Ankara’s forces on high alert, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted in favor of the resolution. I’d begged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to do something to prevent a vote, but she said there was little she could do. Defense Secretary Bob Gates and I delivered a press statement outside the White House, reiterating our opposition and saying that our own commanders in Iraq had raised the prospect of losing critical bases in Turkey. Eight former secretaries of state signed a letter opposing congressional action on the issue. All this occurred over a resolution condemning something that had happened almost a hundred years before.
We managed to convince the Turks that we would do everything possible to prevent a vote in the full House, which we eventually did. But that was just one example of how the tendency of the Congress to grandstand on hot-button issues can severely interfere with the conduct of foreign policy. This case was all the more galling because the democratically elected Armenian government had little interest in the resolution. In fact, it was engaged in an effort to improve relations with Turkey, and it didn’t need it either. The separation of powers didn’t always work to the advantage of U.S. interests. Few countries were willing to believe that the President of the United States couldn’t prevent a vote of that kind if he really wanted to.
From one of the world’s most admired women, this is former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s compelling story of eight years serving at the highest levels of government. In her position as America’s chief diplomat, Rice traveled almost continuously around the globe, seeking common ground among sometimes bitter enemies, forging agreement on divisive issues, and compiling a remarkable record of achievement.
A native of Birmingham, Alabama who overcame the racism of the Civil Rights era to become a brilliant academic and expert on foreign affairs, Rice distinguished herself as an advisor to George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign. Once Bush was elected, she served as his chief adviser on national-security issues – a job whose duties included harmonizing the relationship between the Secretaries of State and Defense. It was a role that deepened her bond with the President and ultimately made her one of his closest confidantes.
With the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Rice found herself at the center of the Administration’s intense efforts to keep America safe. Here, Rice describes the events of that harrowing day – and the tumultuous days after. No day was ever the same. Additionally, Rice also reveals new details of the debates that led to the war in Afghanistan and then Iraq.
The eyes of the nation were once again focused on Rice in 2004 when she appeared before the 9-11 Commission to answer tough questions regarding the country’s preparedness for – and immediate response to – the 9-11 attacks. Her responses, it was generally conceded, would shape the nation’s perception of the Administration’s competence during the crisis. Rice conveys just how pressure-filled that appearance was and her surprised gratitude when, in succeeding days, she was broadly saluted for her grace and forthrightness.
From that point forward, Rice was aggressively sought after by the media and regarded by some as the Administration’s most effective champion.
In 2005 Rice was entrusted with even more responsibility when she was charged with helping to shape and carry forward the President’s foreign policy as Secretary of State. As such, she proved herself a deft crafter of tactics and negotiation aimed to contain or reduce the threat posed by America’s enemies. Here, she reveals the behind-the-scenes maneuvers that kept the world’s relationships with Iran, North Korea and Libya from collapsing into chaos. She also talks about her role as a crisis manager, showing that at any hour -- and at a moment’s notice -- she was willing to bring all parties to the bargaining table anywhere in the world.
No Higher Honor takes the reader into secret negotiating rooms where the fates of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Lebanon often hung in the balance, and it draws back the curtain on how frighteningly close all-out war loomed in clashes involving Pakistan-India and Russia-Georgia, and in East Africa.
Surprisingly candid in her appraisals of various Administration colleagues and the hundreds of foreign leaders with whom she dealt, Rice also offers here keen insight into how history actually proceeds. In No Higher Honor, she delivers a master class in statecraft -- but always in a way that reveals her essential warmth and humility, and her deep reverence for the ideals on which America was founded.
‘No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington’ by Condoleezza Rice
By Glenn Kessler,
Of all the senior foreign-policy officials during the tumultuous George W. Bush presidency, Condoleezza Rice was the least complicated. The others — Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld — had at one time or another imagined themselves as a potential president, been captains of industry or the military and were experienced in the dark arts of bureaucratic Washington.
Rice, intelligent, poised and always gracious, was cut from a different cloth and — especially in the early years as Bush’s national security adviser — appeared overshadowed and outmatched by her more famous counterparts. Yet, she rarely seemed publicly perturbed and never looked back, only forward, preternaturally optimistic that things would work out in the end.
Now, in her memoir, “No Higher Honor,” Rice looks back, offering unexpected candor about her tenure as national security adviser in Bush’s first term and as secretary of state. For a longtime Rice watcher — as diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post from 2002 to 2010, I traveled on many of the overseas trips she describes — the moments of self-doubt and regrets that she describes are a revelation.
(Full disclosure: In 2007, I wrote a book that critically examined Rice’s diplomacy — too critically in the view of some of her aides. Rice never complained to me personally, but in press interviews she rejected a central premise: that the mistakes she had made as national security adviser had hamstrung her options as the nation’s chief diplomat. In her memoir, she makes one brief, but positive, mention of me.)
In many ways, this is the first serious memoir of the Bush presidency. It is long — more than 750 pages — and dispenses with the obligatory autobiographical material because Rice wrote that in last year’s “Extraordinary, Ordinary People.” Thus it is a comprehensive look at the foreign policy strategy carved out by the president and his aides, but without the usual score-setting typical of such tomes. And although Rice defends many key decisions, most especially the choice to invade Iraq, she also acknowledges the mistakes and missteps made along the way.
In public, Rice was such an articulate and fierce defender of Bush administration policies that it is striking to learn that she realized the errors were piling up. I interviewed her a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to understand why U.S. alliances were so frayed, and she insisted, even privately, that there were absolutely no problems. Now, in her book, she admits that the administration mishandled concerns about the Kyoto climate change treaty — “a self-inflicted wound that could have been avoided” — and failed to respond positively, after the Sept. 11 attacks, to NATO’s invocation of the article that it was considered an attack on all NATO states.
Rice emphasizes that the well-publicized disputes with Cheney and Rumsfeld were (in her mind) not personal, but simply business — policy differences over consequential issues. Given how roughly Cheney and Rumsfeld treated her in their accounts of the Bush years, such equanimity is remarkable.
Although Rice writes in workmanlike prose, her book comes alive when she recounts the confusion and panic in the days and weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. No matter what one thinks about the policy decisions that were made — and many would be criticized afterward — one cannot help but feel sympathy for administration officials as they grapple to find their way forward, both professionally and personally. A particularly heart-stopping moment was when, for 24 hours, the entire White House staff believed they had been exposed to a deadly toxin for which there was no reliable antidote.
Less satisfactory is Rice’s account of the decision to invade Iraq. She never really explains how it came about, except in her telling the move against Iraq began as coercive diplomacy that eventually achieved unstoppable momentum. She recalls the president asked for military options in December 2001, three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, and then told advisers in September 2002 that either Saddam Hussein would give up his weapons or there would be war.
But were there discussions about the pros and cons of an invasion? Was there a policy process that allowed all points of views to be exposed? Rice does not say. That was her responsibility as national security adviser, and it is a failing of the book that she does not address the many questions about her management of the national security process in the first term.
She hints at the problems, saying, “I’ve asked myself many times how I might have broken this cycle of distrust and dysfunction.” She recounts being constantly surprised by backdoor maneuvers by the vice president’s office, including one that led her to threaten to resign. She admits to failing to press the Pentagon hard enough for a post-invasion plan and regrets her handling of intelligence concerning illicit weapons in Iraq. The intelligence turned out to be wrong, casting a pall over the motivations for invading Iraq.
Rice is much more open detailing the administration’s struggle to deal with Iraq’s descent into violence during Bush’s second term. She congratulates herself on forcing more State Department officials into the field, but she might want to read “We Meant Well”— a hilarious and often depressing account by a foreign service officer of what really happened on the ground.
Although Rice offers sharp and sometimes penetrating portraits of foreign leaders, her portrayal of Bush is largely blank. This is strange because there has never been a president so close to his national security adviser — or his secretary of state, which gave her extraordinary access, power and influence in the second term.
The president constantly pops up in the narrative, usually with a quip and an insight that Rice finds to be significant. But she never really explains what drew her to him and how they became such a close team. “I liked him,” Rice writes. “He was funny and irreverent but serious about policy.”
There are moments of insight, such as irritation at Bush’s tendency to undermine his staff. Rice also writes that she “visibly stiffened” when Bush said he had gotten a sense of Vladimir Putin’s soul, after hearing a “rather syrupy story” about a cross the Russian leader’s mother had given him, lending the “perception that the President had naively trusted Putin.”
As is usual in administration memoirs, there are sections of historical revisionism. Rice dwells at length on Bush’s decision to call for a Palestine state in 2001, giving it great significance, but wonders why it wasn’t well noticed at the time. Perhaps that’s because President Bill Clinton had already done so before he left office.
In addition, Rice’s account of a fierce debate over whether to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terror is missing a key detail — that intelligence analysts had discovered traces of highly enriched uranium on documents provided by the North Koreans. But she does admit she persuaded Bush to take a gamble that backfired spectacularly.
Reading Rice’s book, one is struck by the irony that she spends her final months grappling with North Korea and trying to forge peace in the Middle East — two issues where Bush had broken most decisively with the approach taken by Clinton. And yet, eight years later, Rice and Bush had come full circle, trying to find a solution along the lines taken by the Clinton administration.
Rice makes a credible case that the Israelis and Palestinians were closer to a final peace deal than is generally known. Yet, in the unfortunate practice of American politics, the incoming Obama administration upended the Bush administration’s policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After they took office, Obama administration officials spoke scornfully of Rice’s peace efforts — and now have so bungled the process that the two sides are even further apart.
Rice’s memoir is a reminder that the foreign-policy choices facing the United States are complex and difficult, with no easy solutions. A little less hubris at the beginning of an administration, with less of a desire to break with the past, might make the future less rocky. Rice has acquitted herself well in telling her side of the story; now she awaits the judgment of history.
Kessler, who writes The Fact Checker column for The Washington Post, is the author of “The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy.”
© The Washington Post Company
T HE RIDE TO FOGGYBOTTOM from my Watergate apartment was short. I had the good fortune to live four minutes from the office, and I’d been grateful many times after late nights and tense days that I didn’t have to commute.
On this, my last morning, I would have enjoyed a little more time to reflect. But I was quickly in the garage and then up the secretary’s private elevator to the seventh floor, entering the ornate paneled hallway lined with portraits of my predecessors.
I met my staff for one final time to thank them. They had a gift for me: they’d purchased my White House Cabinet Room chair. Each member of the President’s Cabinet sits in a large brown leather chair with a plaque on the back. I remember seeing “Secretary of State” for the first time and blushing at the thought that there had been a few others who had chairs like this before me. Did Thomas Jefferson have his own chair?
The ceremonial part of the meeting was short, though, because we had work to do. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, was coming to negotiate a memorandum of understanding on terms for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. Turmoil in the Middle East had been there when I arrived, and it was going to be there when I left. But it was a fundamentally different place than when we had entered office in 2001. So much had happened to shape the contours of a new Middle East.
Toward the end of my day, I stopped to look at the four portraits of former secretaries that I’d kept near me. There was Thomas Jefferson— everyone kept Thomas Jefferson—and George Marshall, arguably the greatest secretary of state and, well, everybody kept George Marshall too.
But I’d asked to have Dean Acheson and William Seward moved up the queue. Acheson graced my outer office. When he left as secretary in 1953, he was hounded by the question “Who lost China?” with many blaming him for America’s inability to prevent Mao Zedong’s victory. Now he was remembered as one of the founding fathers of NATO.
And I kept William Seward. Why would anyone keep Seward’s portrait in a place of honor? Well, he bought Alaska. When the purchase was submitted for ratification in the Senate in 1867, Seward was excoriated: “Why would you pay the tsar of Russia seven million dollars for that icebox?” The decision quickly became known as “Seward’s folly.” One day I was talking with the then defense minister of Russia, Sergei Ivanov.
He’d recently visited Alaska. “It’s so beautiful,” he said. “It reminds me of Russia.” “Sergei, it used to be Russia,” I quipped. We’re all glad that Seward bought Alaska.
The portraits were not just decoration; they were a reminder of something that I often told the press and others: Today’s headlines and history’s judgment are rarely the same. If you are too attentive to the former, you will most certainly not do the hard work of securing the latter.
In that vein, Dean Acheson and I shared more than having had the honor of serving in turbulent times; we shared a favorite quote from the English historian C. V. Wedgwood: “History is lived forwards but it is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.”
My, you’ve lived a lot of history, I thought. Then I headed down the hall to meet the Israeli foreign minister one last time...