When Texas Gov. George W. Bush decided to run for president in 1999, he enlisted as his top foreign-policy adviser a former National Security Council staffer who was close to his father. Condoleezza Rice was serving as provost at Stanford University and ready for a change. "No Higher Honor" is an exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, account of the eight years Ms. Rice spent in the Bush administration. She enjoyed a close personal relationship with the president; he asked her to put together his foreign-policy advisory team and consulted her regularly on a wide variety of policy issues. This closeness makes the book an important, if occasionally self-serving, contribution to the history of a controversial presidency.
In the first term, as national security adviser, Ms. Rice served primarily as a facilitator of the policy process, and her account of the intense and sometimes contentious battles after 9/11 reads like the notes of a careful but disinterested observer. Her stories add texture to the well-known history of those days and weeks, sometimes movingly so—as in her description of the "deep, mournful moment" that the national-security team shared over hymns the weekend after the attack. For the most part, though, she breaks no new ground.
That the second term takes up 38 of the 58 chapters in the book reflects her larger role as the chief advocate of the kinder, gentler foreign policy of the second Bush administration. "The time for diplomacy is now," she declared at the 2005 hearings to confirm her as secretary of state—words she added to the remarks her speechwriters had prepared. The implication was clear: The second term would be different from the first. What never comes clear in "No Higher Honor" is why. Ms. Rice furnishes plenty of detail on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that consumes the lives of diplomats, but it's possible to finish these 766 pages without coming to understand her boss's broad shift in philosophy or why she was able to change his thinking.
Nowhere was the difference more obvious than in the approach to rogue regimes. In the first term, President Bush famously grouped Iraq, Iran and North Korea together as an "Axis of Evil." He went to war against one of those nations and sought to isolate the other two after pledging to make no distinctions between states that harbor terrorists and terrorists themselves.
When the Bush administration chose to negotiate with Iran in 2005 over the country's nuclear program, it was well aware that Iran was harboring senior al Qaeda officials and was actively supporting the jihadists killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. This decision—greatly influenced by Ms. Rice—represented an abandonment of the Bush doctrine. It is a moment that demands serious consideration in "No Higher Honor," an attempt to reconcile the words of the first term with the actions of the second. Ms. Rice ignores the issue. She reports almost in passing that the president once wondered "whether 'rewarding' the Iranians with an offer to talk made sense while they were killing our soldiers" but drops the subject as quickly as she raised it.
The reversal on North Korea was even more abrupt. On Oct. 9, 2006, the North Koreans tested a crude nuclear device, another in a series of provocations stretching back more than a decade. The president was furious and promised a swift and tough response. Instead, the North Koreans got what they wanted—the attention of the world, a return to the negotiating table with the United States and the legitimacy that such talks confer. Three weeks after the test, Christopher Hill, the U.S. diplomat leading the talks on North Korea, participated in an unauthorized bilateral meeting with the North Koreans when the Chinese cleverly left a three-way meeting.
Ms. Rice was not happy, but she felt that talks on the North Korean weapons program—which had been suspended in February 2005—were paramount. She calls the president's agreement with her proposed diplomatic path "a strategic leap in his thinking." The leap, she writes, was not so much a change in policy as it was a "strategic gamble." "It was not a softening of policy toward the North," she insists. They were negotiating with the regime with the hope of changing it. Months later, North Korea was caught providing nuclear technology to Syria—another rogue regime with many years on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terror.
In "No Higher Honor," Ms. Rice claims her work with North Korea and Iran as triumphs of diplomacy. She argues that negotiating led to new sanctions, which squeezed these repressive regimes. But whatever the effects of these sanctions, the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran continue apace, and they remain the same threat to American interests. Such efforts can only be counted as successful if the engagement itself was the main objective—and, indeed, she covers the renewed commitment to diplomacy under the heading, "Successes on the Proliferation Front." Though, as Ms. Rice noted in a 2000 piece in Foreign Affairs, "multilateral agreements and institutions must not become ends in themselves."
The single greatest challenge of President Bush's second term was Iraq, where it was clear that the U.S. strategy was not working. In 2005, teams in the Pentagon, the State Department, the National Security Council and the office of the vice president worked separately to come up with new ideas. The NSC and vice president pushed for a "surge" of troops in Iraq in support of a counter-insurgency strategy; Ms. Rice was skeptical. In "No Higher Honor," she describes a "raucous" meeting of top national-security officials on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2006. As others pushed the surge, she shared her doubts: "So are we now responsible for the security of the Iraqi population or is that the job of their government?" Ms. Rice wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraqi cities until the Iraqi government forcefully put an end to sectarian killings. It was one of the few arguments in the second term that she lost. It was also one of the most successful policies the president adopted.
Mr. Hayes is a senior writer at the Weekly Standard.