Anne Gearan’s interesting piece on Condi Rice yesterday got me thinking about what structurally is enhancing or constraining the Secretary of State’s success.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has become the most popular member of the Bush administration and a potential candidate to succeed her boss in the White House, even as Americans lose confidence in the president she serves and patience with the Iraq war she helped launch.
Entering her second year as the country’s senior diplomat and foreign policy spokeswoman, Rice has improbably shed much of her image as the hawkish “warrior princess” at President Bush’s side. The nickname was reportedly bestowed by her staff at the White House National Security Council, where Rice was an intimate member of Bush’s first-term war council.
Rice resolutely defends the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism and the expansive executive powers that Bush claims came with it. She has lately sounded more optimistic than Bush about the progress of the Iraq war and the future for that country.
Yet, it is unusual to hear anyone talk about Rice as an architect of either of those two defining undertakings of the Bush presidency.
By a mix of charm, luck and physical distance from the White House, Rice has managed to escape the fate of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who saw their public approval ratings fall to historic lows before rebounding slightly recently.
Kurt Campbell, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, credits Rice’s heavy travel schedule, an approach to diplomacy that is more pragmatic than other Bush advisers, and a measure of personal pluck.
“She appears to have sort of skated away” from controversies over U.S. intelligence failures and aggressive U.S. tactics in the hunt for terrorists, Campbell said, and from the perception that the United States is “slogging” along in Iraq.
“She appears at once to be close to the president but separate and detached from some of the foibles of the administration, and that’s a very hard thing to pull off,” he said.
Rice has been busy putting together small victories. For a while — and perhaps still — there looked like there was a breakthrough in negotiations with North Korea. She got the Gaza-Egypt border crossing open, and has been putting constant and regular pressure on Israel to follow through with commitments made when she pushed forward a post-Gaza framework deal. She has had other successes as well — but frankly, without taking anything away from the way she is performing as Secretary of State, she is cutting a work agenda that is very Colin Powell-like.
Many are ready to call anything “realism” that doesn’t look like ‘Borg-ian assimilate or annihilate neoconservatism.’
Condi Rice was never a neoconservative. She just bent their way after 9/11. In fact, before then, she was trying to tutor George W. Bush in what “neo-realism” would look like in a world of America as the ascendant power — in contrast to the Nixon/Kissingerian realism that managed American interests as America was in decline. In March 2001, she even arranged private tutorial sessions with America’s most influential Machiavellian realist, Robert Kaplan, who was then my colleague as a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
At the time, there were three camps in the White House: neo-realists who had Rice at their helm; neoconservatives who had Paul Wolfowitz as their in-government high priest with many others inside the administration and a well-organized band of ideology officers embedded in civil society; and Colin Powell — who was neither realist, liberal internationalist, or neoconservative — but who was the cautious incrementalist who felt that America need to be far more careful with its political and military capital than these other camps called for.
Powell was apparently the guy in the room who mattered when he was there because he would usually bring up the part of the picture that others had conveniently neglected as they tried to sell their plans to the President. The problem was that Powell had to be in the room. If he wasn’t there, his ability to influence the process was seriously diminished. Powell didn’t have an “ism” he was championing.
Rice does not look like a doctrinaire realist today. She looks like a Colin Powell cautious incrementalist — doing what she can here and there, nearly in an ad hoc fashion to promote global stability, encourage and nudge forward self-determination, and doing deals with some of the world’s real bad guys — particularly in North Korea and Syria.
If she embodies a new realism, then it is realism super-lite. Nonetheless, Condi’s stock is rising in the eyes of many.
But she needs to be aware of a few things. First, she has the “latitude” to do what she is doing both because she has a personal relationship with the President that lets her call many of her own shots and because she does not have a Condi Rice at the National Security Council shutting her down.
Rice’s biggest failure as NSC Advisor to the President is that she got swept up in the strong Cheney-Rumsfeld current following 9/11 and tilted the President and the national security decision-making process away from judicious analysis and consideration of all options and all consequences. Rice deferred to “the cabal” and made Bush’s decision making easier and less complex than it should have been because she filtered out much of what should have been before the President.
In the past, Rice shut down Powell and his team. Today, Stephen Hadley — though while a close devotee of Vice President Cheney — is not taking on his former boss on any front whatsoever. Condi Rice is succeeding as Secretary of State because she doesn’t have her clone shutting her down.
The other reason she is successful is because the President is weak. When Bush was at the height of his power, he chose to bully the world — on everything from America’s disdain for renewal of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to climate change remediation efforts and negotiations. When Bush was strong, America walked away from a deal that Colin Powell’s team had assembled with North Korea, which had great continuity with the Clinton team’s work in this arena, and which looks a lot like the deal that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Christopher Hill put together earlier this year. The cost for Bush’s arrogance and failure to move forward with North Korea: about 8-12 nuclear warheads that the North Koreans probably have today.
Bush negotiates when he is weak, not when he is strong — and thus he is a miserable investor in global stability — because he has taught the world that as he sees it, the powerful make all the rules, make all their own weather, and decide right and wrong. This is not what one would call a “democratic message.”
So, Rice is succeeding because the President is weaker and because she has no Condi Rice to shut her down. But she still has to worry about Cheney and his torture-obsessed thugs.
For one, we still have the story that her own Ambassador to the United Nations, the recess-appointed and Cheney-vassal John Bolton, leaked the news of her diplomatically fragile effort to offer Syria a “Libya-like” makeover track. Bolton sabotaged Rice — and thus far has gotten away with it.
David Addington, Cheney’s chief of staff, is no fan of Condi Rice’s and has fought her efforts vigorously inside the White House. So far, Rice is winning — but if Cheney’s power resurges which may occur, Rice could be chewed up in a tug-of-war over foreign policy. To this writer, Cheney appears to have successfully tossed off the negatives from the Libby indictment.
The other risk that Rice has is that if she covers up and flacks for White House misdeeds on illegal wiretaps, detention centers, and torture — these will eventually undermine her with an American public that won’t tolerate institutionalized dishonesty in the Oval Office.
But as things look today, Rice may not be readying herself for President as much as getting ready to be John McCain’s vice presidential running mate.
That ticket — if the Republicans were smart enough to put it together — would be tough for any Democrat, Hillary included, to beat.
— Steve Clemons
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