Condi Rice Talks Freedom, War, Working For Bush

Former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was among the head architects of the way America responded to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. She was also at the center of divisive debates within the George W. Bush administration. In her new memoir No Higher Honor, she defends and explains Bush's decision to engage in war in Iraq, and shares how her work took a toll on her personal life. She speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: But first, we turn to a major player in the world of foreign policy and politics. Condoleezza Rice led the National Security Council and the State Department through what was arguably the most perilous time in modern U.S. history. She stood at the side of President George W. Bush during the frightening days after the September 11 attacks and was one of the main architects of America's strategic approach in the post-9/11 world.

But behind the scenes in those critical moments and in the years that followed, Rice was at the center of divisive debates within the administration over the global vision intended to spread freedom abroad and guard safety at home. She details the tensions and triumphs of her career in the Bush administration in her new book, "No Higher Honor."

And Condoleezza Rice joins us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: It's a pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, your book is just out and it's already gotten some impressive reviews. It's been called the most expansive record of the Bush years, the most substantive, the first serious memoir of the Bush presidency. And part of the reason that that's being noted is that there have been a number of memoirs by former officials and several of those have been seen as score settling in a way that yours is not.

So the first question I have for you is, why do you think there have been so many? And did you deliberately set out to create a contrast to these prior memoirs by focusing very seriously and expansively, as the reviewers have said, on sort of walking people through the policy process?

RICE: I didn't think about what others would do or had done. I wanted to write a book that really did detail the policies, the reasons for them, the debates behind them in as comprehensive a way as I could, in as direct a way as I could and as candid a way as I could because this was a very consequential time. And I felt an obligation to try to get this all on the record. It probably helps a little bit that I've got an academic background, but I wanted very much this to be a book that engages the foreign policy decisions.

MARTIN: I have to ask you on the score settling question about former Vice President Dick Cheney's book, where he characterizes you, and also in subsequent interviews, as tearful in your encounter with President Bush over a key point. A number of people are offended by that characterization. Are you?

RICE: Well, I just don't think it was true. I mean, I was tearful when I saw the purple (unintelligible) revolution in Iraq. I was tearful, sometimes, when I visited wounded soldiers, but - no. I didn't go to the vice president in a tearful fashion about something that had been written in the press.

MARTIN: On the key question of the relationships with the key players, including the vice president, you are very candid about the fact that there are tensions, but you make the case - and also, of course, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - you make the case that these were institutional and not personal. Why are you so sure about that, particularly given the vice president's later characterization of you?

RICE: Well, because I've been a student of international politics for a long time and I know that in difficult, chaotic, consequential times, personalities come to the fore and there's very often conflict. Personalities do color how those disagreements play out, but I never felt that it was personal. I remain a good friend of Don Rumsfeld. I remain respectful of the vice president, but we just didn't agree.

MARTIN: Is there any way you think your race, your gender, or perhaps your age affected their treatment of you, particularly given that you were the youngest person of the key players in foreign policy?

RICE: Well, I can't go back and create myself as a white man, you know, and have a kind of a controlled experiment. But I never thought that that was really an issue, certainly not race or gender. I think, perhaps a bit with Don, as I say in the book, Don had championed my career. I think, for him, I had been even something of a protégé, and sometimes, that's a hard transition to make from that kind of relationship to one of equals.

But I really tend to think, Michel, that it was more institutional. As National Security Advisor, you're the honest broker. You really don't have an opportunity to push your own opinion in the way that you do when you're a cabinet secretary, and if you just look at the difference in how I was able to exercise the two roles, I think a lot of it was really structural and had to do with the roles I played.

MARTIN: Let's go back for a minute if we can, and I just want to ask why you decided to go and work for President Bush. At the time, he was candidate Bush. You say, you know, very tersely - not tersely. It's not mean, but in the book you say, I liked him.

RICE: I did.

MARTIN: And was that enough?

RICE: Well, I'm a policy person. I love foreign policy and I often tell my students, if you really want to understand how policy and politics come together, you really have to work for a campaign, and I'd done a little bit of work for the campaign of George H.W. Bush. Not a lot, but some.

And when President George H.W. Bush introduced me to his son and said he thought he might run for the presidency – even though as I say in the book, I thought it was a long shot at the time, to be frank - I thought, well, this would be a very interesting opportunity to see if we can take policy in a challenging time and marry it with politics in a way that's good for the country. And so, for me, as someone who had these interests, it was just a great opportunity and I very much liked the way he thought about the world.

It wasn't just really foreign policy. I liked the way that he thought about education. I was really captured by this idea of No Child Left Behind and the phrase the soft bigotry of low expectations. So I wanted to work for him and I'm very, very glad I did.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. We're talking about her new memoir, "No Higher Honor."

You know, on the key question, going back to this key question of Iraq, one of the criticisms of your book is that you don't really explain the decision to invade Iraq, and the reason that this is an issue is that you know that there are many people - I would characterize it on the American left, but perhaps there are others, who are still convinced that the key members of the administration lied and that they shaped intelligence to fit an outcome that had been predetermined.

Now, you make the case in the book - you know, you devote a lot of time to this - that there were, perhaps, shortcomings in the way specific issues were communicated, particularly the nuances of intelligence. But given that you also say that the vice president's office was of one hawkish mind, his staff was of one hawkish mind, that they were constantly engaged in these kind of back door maneuvers, why wouldn't reasonable people think that that's pretty close to lying?

RICE: Well, because the intelligence was as clear as any intelligence I've ever seen and I've been in this business a long time. I worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I'd worked in the White House before, and when you had intelligence assessments that said Saddam Hussein has reconstituted his biological and chemical weapons and could reconstitute his nuclear weapon in a year if he got foreign assistance, by the end of the decade if he didn't, I've actually never seen clearer indications than that.

The problem is the intelligence wasn't right. And what I do try to do in the book is to show that we had been through 16 Security Council resolutions in which he'd been considered a threat to international peace and security. We tried everything we could think of, including strengthening the sanctions prior to 9/11, and then even trying to get him to leave the country, because nobody wanted to go to war.

But we didn't think we could continue to live with the threat of Saddam Hussein, who had used his weapons of mass destruction against his own people - this wasn't a theoretical proposition - was shooting at our aircraft in the no-fly zones, had put 400,000 of his people in mass graves, and was a cancer in the Middle East.

And so I hope that people come away from this with an understanding that is, as should be the case, war was for us a last resort.

MARTIN: Richard Clarke makes the point in his book in 2004 - and he was, of course, a trusted aide to you, where you - and you gave him a key role in the post-9/11 response - that there were people who were itching to go to war. And I'm asking about this because you're saying that nobody wanted to go to war and he says that there were people who were itching to. I'd just like to ask you to address that.

RICE: Sure. Well, the most important thing is the president was not itching to go to war. President Bush understood what it meant to send men and women into war. He had done it in Afghanistan and we looked for other alternatives. We tried to get Saddam Hussein to give up his weapons of mass destruction and to come clean with the inspectors through Resolution 1441 in the fall of 2002. We actually even looked at an Egyptian claim that Saddam was prepared to take a billion dollars and leave. I think we would have taken that deal, even though, obviously, that would have had other repercussions.

Once we went to war and overthrew this dictator, we felt we had an obligation to the Iraqi people to help them build a decent democratic society, but we didn't go to war to bring democracy to Iraq. We didn't go to war because someone had a notion of hubris in overthrowing Saddam Hussein. We went to war because we thought we had a major security threat.

And if you look back, even before 9/11, Iraq would have been at the top of anybody's list in terms of security threats.

MARTIN: And when you say no one, does that include the vice president and his staff?

RICE: I don't believe that the vice president wanted to go to war.

MARTIN: And you also write very - I would say movingly - about your appearance before the 9/11 Commission and the whole question of how to - and I know you struggled with that, because I was reporting on these issues at the time and I do recall conversations with you, if you don't mind my disclosing that, where you talk about...

RICE: No, fine. Yes.

MARTIN: ...just struggling with the decision about whether to testify. You felt, at the end of the day, that it was necessary that you testify. There's still the broader question of whether some broader apology is warranted to the American people for the mistakes that were made. Do you think that there is?

RICE: Well, I certainly regret mistakes that were made, but if you look at any period in history, any big decisions, mistakes are going to be made. People are human. They have imperfect information. They're acting under tremendous pressure.

For 9/11, the culprit was al-Qaida. The culprit was a freedom gap in the Middle East that produced that kind of virulent hatred that exploded on our streets in New York and in the Pentagon. And so I think we did our best, but of course I wish we could have done better on any number of these issues. That, however, I would hope would be the true admission of anyone who ever served in these positions during times of consequence.

MARTIN: But what about the whole question of the post-invasion plan in Iraq? I completely take your point about 9/11, but what about the post-invasion plan for Iraq, which is where some of the critical failings seem to have occurred?

RICE: We obviously planned and planned and planned, but some of the assumptions were wrong. For instance, I think - I know we believed that there would be a - civil service kind of institutions that would survive once you'd lopped off the Baathist one or two percent. Well, they faded into the woodwork and we were left with a lot of chaos.

We have to remember, too, that this was a huge undertaking. It was a country that had been under dictatorship for decades. It was a country with virtually no institutions in this cult or personality that was Saddam Hussein and when he was overthrown, not much was left of the Iraqi fabric.

MARTIN: I think the question would be, though, is this another failure of information, which is human, or is this a failure of ego and arrogance where alternate points of view were not adequately given a chance to be assessed? Is that part of the process, a failure to process?

RICE: Alternate points of view were assessed and discussed and assessed and discussed, including how much of a role could exiles play in trying to bring stability to the country, and there was disagreement about that. The Pentagon and I think the vice president's office believed that these exiles could come and essentially run the country pretty quickly, which would allow us to have a smaller footprint and to withdraw.

I think that was not the view of the State Department and ultimately the president. While he wanted to take advantage of some of those exiles, said that anyone who'd been out of the country that long wasn't going to have the kind of indigenous base and insisted on beginning to find a really indigenous leadership for the new Iraq.

MARTIN: So what are you proudest of in your time serving the administration?

RICE: Well, there are several things, but I think the thing that always gave me the greatest inspiration was the people who were seeking their freedom and, therefore, the identification with the Freedom Agenda. I remember, Michel, all of the realists rushing to the barricades after the Freedom Agenda was announced, to say, well, the Middle East was different. It was about stability. Well, it turns out that it was authoritarianism that wasn't stable and I think we put America on the right side of that and perhaps started laying some of the foundation that will, hopefully, lead to not just a peaceful but a democratic Middle East.

MARTIN: What about - apart from the Middle East - one of the points that the book makes is that you have a lot of things to do as secretary of state other than whatever is grabbing the headlines. Is there something apart from the Middle East, the things that everybody thinks of...

RICE: Yes, absolutely. I think the compassion agenda abroad, the president's emergency AIDS relief plan, the malaria initiative. We doubled foreign assistance worldwide. We quadrupled it in Africa - indeed, the entire African agenda, which included American help for the liberation of Liberia, where Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has just won a much deserved Nobel Prize for her leadership.

I think we tried to make life better. We tried to. For people around the world, we understood that democracy, development and defense all go together, and we acted in that way.

MARTIN: Can I just talk for a minute - we have a couple of minutes left - just on a personal level, how you think your time (unintelligible) you tell a couple of, I think, rather poignant stories about – one, there was this point at which, right after the 9/11 attacks, the entire White House staff thought that they had been exposed to a toxin for which there was no antidote. There was that, but also just on a more personal level, just that you had some surgery and all your business was in the street. It was like, there were like segments done about it and you're thinking, wow, really?

RICE: Right, exactly. Diagrams on television. It's really quite something.

MARTIN: You know, really? But you also say there's - I don't know. How do you feel you were marked by those times yourself, on a personal level?

RICE: Well, I have to start by saying that I titled the book "No Higher Honor" because there really is no higher honor, and I hope everybody takes the chance for public service, but there is some sacrifice as well. I say at one point that I lost all conceptions of weekends. I knew that never again was anything that I did going to be truly personal. It would always be a matter for discussion and debate.

It takes a toll and I think that's why it's very, very good after you've done those jobs for a while to go home, and I made the decision to leave Washington to go back to my professorship at Stanford, where I've been for 30 years, and to try to resume something of a normal life.

But of course you're always marked by those experiences, both good and bad, but if you're as fortunate as I have been, you were in the White House on 11/9 when the Berlin wall fell and you were in the White House on 9/11 when the Twin Towers came down and you know that history has a long arc. But I think I feel it's bending toward justice.

MARTIN: What would you like people to draw from your experience?

RICE: I hope that this book gives people a glimpse of what it's really like to be in these jobs, that you have human beings who are, by their very nature, imperfect working with other human beings who are, by their very nature, imperfect on extremely difficult and sometimes what seem to be irresolvable problems. And people do their best, and if you go and you do your best and you do it on the basis of certain principles and values, the most important thing that America has always believed - that no man, woman or child should have to live in tyranny - that ultimately we will be best served by what is happening now. People are taking up that mantle. They're determined that they are going to secure their freedom, and I think this is a story about a consequential time when that very fact of the universality of freedom was reaffirmed.

MARTIN: Condoleezza Rice served as the National Security Advisor and then as Secretary of State in the administration of President George W. Bush. Her latest book is called "No Higher Honor" and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Dr. Rice, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RICE: Pleasure to be with you.

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