Condoleezza Rice weighs America’s failures, successes, and diplomatic challenges yet to come. An interview with Peter Robinson.
Peter Robinson, Uncommon Knowledge: A former provost of Stanford University, Condoleezza Rice served during George H. W. Bush’s administration as a Soviet expert on the National Security Council and during George W. Bush’s first term as national security adviser, and then, during George W. Bush’s second term, as the nation’s sixty-sixth secretary of state. Now, back at Stanford and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, she has written a number of books, most recently No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington. Secretary Rice, welcome.
Condoleezza Rice: It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Robinson: If you were seated at a piano, which would be more fun, performing for Queen Elizabeth or backing up Aretha Franklin?
Rice: Very different experiences, I’d have to say. But I loved doing both and Aretha Franklin knows what she’s doing. She didn’t really need me on the piano, but it was great fun anyway.
Robinson: What did you believe to be true about American foreign policy on September 12, 2011, that you did not on September 10?
Rice: On September 12, we suddenly realized that the United States was not just vulnerable, but vulnerable to a terrorist network—a stateless network—that had come out of a failed state called Afghanistan, and had probably used maybe $300,000 to blow a hole in the Pentagon and bring down the Twin Towers. It completely changes your concept of physical security. And suddenly we had to worry about the protection of the homeland from disasters like 9/11. But in many ways for us, the most vexing possibility was that you could have 9/11 on a grander scale with weapons of mass destruction.
Robinson: So as of September 12, you mentioned physical security. At that point, you mentioned in No Higher Honor that the one time you raised your voice to the president of the United States was when he was in Florida and he had just been informed of a terrorist attack. His impulse was to come back to Washington, and you said—
Rice: I did something I never did again and had never done before. I raised my voice to the president of the United States. I said, “Stay where you are! You can’t come back here. The United States is under attack.” And he did stay, of course, and went to an undisclosed location. And I went then to the bunker, because when the Secret Service wants to lead you someplace, they don’t so much as lead you, as they sort of pick you up and push you in that direction. That day meant that every other day was going to be September 12.
Robinson: So you felt in those first moments—again you mentioned physical security—it wasn’t just the physical security of the nation, you felt that everybody in the White House itself felt physically exposed.
Rice: Well, we knew we were physically exposed. But you didn’t have time to think about that. You only had to think about the nation. And it’s very funny, Peter, you mentioned in the intro that I had been on the White House staff as the Soviet specialist. And, of course, in those days, everybody prepared for the possibility of the unthinkable nuclear war. What would you do if the United States were about to experience that decapitating attack? And almost immediately, those impulses kicked in for me on September 11. And so I went to the bunker. The vice president was there and he was on the phone with the president, getting an unimaginable order to have the Air Force shoot down a civilian aircraft that was not responding, because, after all, civilian aircraft had now all become potential missiles against the country.
And the first thing that I thought was to get in touch with Vladimir Putin and to make sure that the Russians understood that our military forces would be going up on alert, so that we didn’t get into what was called in the old days a spiral of alerts between the two military forces. And Putin was actually on the phone trying to reach President Bush, and so I got on with him. I said, “The president is not available. He’s going to an undisclosed location, but I want you to know our military forces are going on alert.” He said, “I know, ours are coming down. And is there anything else we can do?” And I thought, wow, the Cold War really is over.
And the other thing that I did was to have the State Department send out a cable to every post in the world to say the United States of America has not been decapitated. We are functioning. And you wanted friend and foe to know that we were not suddenly vulnerable.
Robinson: From the day in March 2003 when we invade Iraq, the war went very well for about three weeks, in some ways astonishingly well: a rapid march to Baghdad, the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government. And then for about four years it went badly. This is a book of more than seven hundred pages. Historians will be writing about this for years to come. But if you put on your cap as an educator, when the war went wrong, what went wrong?
Rice: Any big event like war, especially any big event in a country like Iraq that had been so broken by the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, it was going to be hard. And one of the things that I try to dispel in the book is that we thought this was going to be a cakewalk, that we were somehow going to overthrow Saddam Hussein and then the Iraqis would greet us as liberators and it would all be very, very easy. No one thought that. But we did have some faulty assumptions about what would be possible. I think we had faulty assumptions about how solid the governmental institutions were beneath the Baathist Saddam Hussein infrastructure.
And so I can remember standing at my desk, a few days after the overthrow—the statue had come down, as everybody remembers—and saying, where are the oil workers? Because they had suddenly just disappeared. The army seemed to disintegrate. The police seemed to disintegrate. All of that civil service that we thought would be able to run the country with new leadership was suddenly not there.
Robinson: I’m wondering if you, as a Russian expert, thought of parallels of the 1917 revolution, the way that entire country seemed to dissolve once the czar abdicated to the Bolsheviks?
Rice: Frankly, I wish I had thought about it. I think we really underestimated how the fabric of a society can be just completely torn apart by a cult of personality like Saddam Hussein. In many ways, it’s not too much of a stretch to say Saddam Hussein was Iraq, and Iraq was Saddam Hussein. And so there was very little there. And we found ourselves then in the situation of having to administer the country much more thoroughly than we thought would be the case.
Robinson: Military historian Frederick Kagan, quoted in Bob Woodward’s book, The War Within: “A reason why Napoleon did so well . . . for so long is because . . . [his opponents] were having councils of war and Napoleon was just doing stuff.” All right, you were national security adviser through the first term. You were in charge of the councils of war, so to speak. And I’m a layman out here in California, but it looked to me the way it looked to a lot of people: Don Rumsfeld at the Pentagon seems to be sideways with Secretary Powell at the State Department. In 2003, Daniel Drezner of the New Republic wrote: “The CIA is in open revolt.” What’s the substance? Was there dysfunction that ought not to have taken place? Is this simply the kind of thing that you expect when the whole world is being reinvented? Rumsfeld, Cheney, Tenet—all these people have their own memoirs out, and some of the passages are a little testy. People still feel raw about it. What’s the lesson?
Rice: The lesson is that in hard times personalities will become more of what they are, not less what they are. And we had real substantive differences. The fact is people had different views of how some of this ought to be proceeding. But I think it’s a bit of an overstatement to say that the State Department was off doing its own thing. No, the Defense Department had responsibility for postwar reconstruction, because the president wanted a single chain of command—unity of command—between the military forces and what was going on in the civilian side. And so through the Coalition Provisional Authority under Jerry Bremer, reporting up to Don Rumsfeld, and the military chain reporting up to Don Rumsfeld, the Pentagon had responsibility for this. Now, to be fair to the Pentagon, I don’t think anybody had ever undertaken a rebuilding of this magnitude.
There are really a couple of lessons—and we got it right by the time of the surge. The first is, we simply didn’t have enough forces on the ground. And so all of the chaos that breaks out shortly after the statue comes down makes it difficult to do even the simplest task of reconstruction. And we simply didn’t have enough forces. Second was a bit of an intelligence problem. We did not really, fundamentally understand the tribal structures in Iraq. We could have made much better use of the tribes. We could have built Iraq from the outside in instead of from the inside out in the provinces. And the kind of thing that happened with the Anbar “Awakening” in 2005, when we made common cause with the sheiks and really started to get this on a better footing, perhaps that could have happened earlier.
But war is like that. As someone said, when you go to war, plans have a tendency to go out of the window. And you’re inventing on the ground.
Robinson: About the surge. This layman’s understanding, which I am sure is crude, and correct me if I make a substantive error here, is that the war’s going sideways at best for almost four years. And the plan for a surge seems to pop up in a couple of what strike me as odd places. William Luti at the National Security Council was working on a plan for a surge. It seemed to make sense to him. He was quietly building support for it. But one of the places it also seemed to emerge, or kind of crystallize, was Fred Kagan, then a young military historian, who just pulled a few people together and started meeting in the offices of the American Enterprise Institute. They got a retired general, Jack Keane, involved. Jack Keane went to the vice president. It just seems odd that here we have the Pentagon, on which we’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and the war goes sideways under those guys. And the thing that turns it around is this new strategy that pops up in an almost ad hoc fashion. Fair or unfair?
Rice: It wasn’t so ad hoc. In fact, as the war is going badly in 2006, Steve Hadley [then national security adviser] goes to the president and says, “Mr. President, what we are doing isn’t working. We have to do something different.” He starts then an internal review. I said to the president—
Robinson: And Luti reported to Steve Hadley, right?
Rice: Yes, to Steve Hadley. And I said to the president, “Things are not going well.” We started to look at State and what else we could do. Pete Pace [then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] draws together a group of colonels, and asks, why are the numbers of security forces that we are training going up and the security situation is getting worse? And so people across the administration are asking questions about what we’re doing and can we do something differently. I do think there was some resistance in some corners of the Pentagon to the notion that this might actually mean a doubling down, as some people have put it, on forces.
And frankly, I was skeptical on two fronts. I told the president, it’s not that I don’t think we should have more troops—I’ve seen that for a long time—but if we have more troops doing the same thing we’ve been doing, then we’re just going to get more Americans killed. If the Iraqis are not ready to put aside their own sectarian feuds, blood feuds, then we can’t save them from themselves. And so once we were able to satisfy those conditions, and once Bob Gates came to the Pentagon and General Petraeus comes to be the new commander of forces, you began to get, I think, a Pentagon that sees the war differently. So it is a more logical train. I do think that the outside people, like Fred Kagan and Jack Keane, were important to this, but it would not be correct to say that there was no genesis of this in the administration.
Robinson: A simple last question on Iraq. We invade in 2003. The last troops come home in December 2011. There are different ways of accounting for it, but between those two dates, we spend at least $800 billion. We suffer more than 4,400 killed and more than 31,000 wounded. Estimates of Iraqis killed vary widely, but they seem to center on about 100,000. It is an immensely expensive and bloody conflict. Was it worth it?
Rice: When you look at Iraq today, you see an Iraq that is still struggling with its new democratic institutions, but that has actually undergone the revolution already that you’re seeing in the rest of the Middle East. There is a reason that Iraqi citizens were not out in the streets protesting that their government be overthrown, as they were in Egypt, as they are in Syria. It’s because Iraqis know that that is their representative government. They may not be happy with the electricity that they’re providing—
Robinson: But they voted. Those purple thumbs mattered.
Rice: Those purple thumbs mattered. And second, we have succeeded in replacing a homicidal murderer, who put 400,000 of his own people in mass graves. You want to talk about a humanitarian disaster. He sought and had used weapons of mass destruction, had invaded his neighbors, was an implacable enemy of the United States. He’s been replaced with admittedly a fragile government in Iraq that will not invade its neighbors, that will not seek weapons of mass destruction, that will not be a cancer in the Middle East, and will be favorably disposed to the United States, becoming for instance the fourth-largest purchaser of American military equipment in the Middle East. That’s called a strategic trade-up. And in the Middle East, which after all was the source of the hatred that actually brought about the Al-Qaedas of the world. Yeah, it was worth it.
THE WAR ON TERRORISM
Robinson: In May 2011, the United States finally got Osama bin Laden. You write, “I felt a great sense of relief and pride, as well as gratitude to President Obama for the bold decision to launch the raid that led to that killing. And I felt vindication for putting into place many of the tools that had led to that day.” First of all, why did you feel relieved? Did bin Laden still represent a threat, or was it just a hanging, unfinished piece of business?
Rice: I think he represented the face and the soul of Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is not today the organization that it was on September 11. I have always felt that when we killed or captured a lot of their field generals, like Khalid Sheik Muhammad—which was like getting Rommel in the middle of the war—that we really weakened that organization. And every successive generation of leadership was not as good as the former. And so they, I am quite sure, aren’t capable of carrying out a 9/11. They can still get lucky. They can still do small attacks. So it wasn’t that we needed to get bin Laden for those reasons. But the soul of Al-Qaeda has now been killed. And with the Arab spring, the sense that somehow Al-Qaeda had an answer to how to deal with these corrupt regimes is also made a lie, and so the organization is now tremendously weakened.
Robinson: You touched on something that I want to make explicit. Back during the Cold War, we placed all kinds of pressures on ourselves. There were proxy wars, economic pressures, diplomatic pressures. In the war with radical Islam that began on September 11, 2001, we killed a lot of people. And there is no way around it. That, in your judgment, was necessary?
Rice: Absolutely. Because this was not a law enforcement action; this was a war. I actually had this discussion with my undergraduates a couple of weeks ago in class. And we talked about the “war” terminology.
Robinson: I think we can safely say you are the only former secretary of state now teaching undergraduates.
Rice: I said to them, why the war? And they said, well, was it a metaphor? I said no, did you think about what they did? They went after the financial center of the country. They went after the military nerve center of the country. They were going after either the White House or the Capitol. A war—
Robinson: They tried to kill Professor Rice.
Rice: They tried to kill the government and the authority of the United States. They went after the integrity of the state—that’s war. This isn’t just some criminal action. And so that’s why when you think about killing their field generals, it was very critical.
Robinson: Why was President Obama’s decision bold? Part of this has to do with Pakistan, doesn’t it?
Rice: Some of it has to do with Pakistan. And also, I am quite sure he was being told that there was, pick a number, only a 50 or 60 percent chance that bin Laden was there. There was a chance that this could go the way of the  rescue effort in Iran, which went so badly. And presidents are looking at—when these presentations are made—every bad possibility. And yet he said, let’s do it. That’s what presidents should do.
Robinson: Now this point you make, “I felt vindication for putting into place many of the tools that led to that day.” Name those tools.
Rice: He would not have had that opportunity for a bold decision if we had not had the information that we gleaned from Khalid Sheik Muhammad through enhanced interrogation. He would not have had the drones that were able to establish the whereabouts. He would not have had the intelligence network, and he would not have had the military and intelligence cooperation so thoroughly and completely integrated in the way that they were without the decisions that George W. Bush took in 2001.
Robinson: Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, your colleague on the Bush cabinet, wrote in the Wall Street Journal shortly after the raid that killed bin Laden, “But policies put in place by the very administration that presided over this splendid success, that is, the Obama administration, promise fewer such successes in the future.” So the question that cannot be avoided is: has Barack Obama, the man who boldly sent in the special force to kill bin Laden, made the United States safer, or has he undone some of the important work of the Bush administration?
Rice: Well, I think he has actually kept in place most of the important work of the Bush administration, which—
Robinson: Gitmo is still open.
Rice: Gitmo is still open, and it turns out it is very hard to close it. The surveillance programs under the Patriot Act are still in place. I do think that there is a bit of a law enforcement mentality creeping back in. But when you find that they are willing to use drones—
Robinson: Far more than your administration did.
Rice: Far more—and to take out an American citizen. By the way, Anwar al-Awlaki was a bad guy and it was the right thing to do. But you know, for the Obama administration—which said, oh, the terrible things the Bush administration did in the name of the war on terrorism—this is pretty far out there as a decision without “due process or trial,” to blow away a terrorist from the sky. And so actually, I think they have sustained most of the programs. But to a degree a little bit of a law enforcement mentality starts to creep in, like the very ill-fated decision to “try” Khalid Sheik Muhammad in New York City, one of the most ridiculous notions I think I’ve heard.
Robinson: That took them about what, forty-eight hours to back down on that?
Rice: Yeah, to back down, but I think to the degree that that starts to creep in, to the degree that you start to think that a terrorist is just like a suspect whom you are going to Mirandize and all that, then you start to get into trouble. Because it may not be Al-Qaeda to do another 9/11, but there is a terrorist threat out there. And one day they might get lucky if you don’t have sufficient information to stop them.
Robinson: Last question: Clare Boothe Luce—diplomat, congresswoman, journalist, playwright—used to say that history would give even the greatest figures only one sentence. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and freed the slaves. Churchill defeated Hitler. What is the one sentence for George W. Bush?
Rice: That freedom is an inalienable right of every man, woman, and child. And that we have to look to end tyranny.
Robinson: Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, Hoover Institution fellow, and teacher of undergraduates at Stanford University, and the author most recently of No Higher Honor, thank you very much.
Rice: Thank you.
Condoleezza Rice is the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution, the Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at the Graduate School of Business, and professor of political science at Stanford University.
From January 2005 to 2009, she served as the 66th secretary of state of the United States. Before serving as America’s chief diplomat, she served as assistant to the president for national security affairs (national security adviser) from January 2001 to 2005.