Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book Review (#30 of 2014) No Higher Honor by Condoleeza Rice

No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington
I read this memoir with a bias-- I think Condoleeza Rice is awesome and fantastic. I've written about this before. I listened to this book as Sec. Rice read in her own voice-- the only way to read a memoir. You can hear she's still frustrated with Putin, still angry with Ehud Olmert, and relieved to have done her duty.

There is little biographical background in this book, nor is there a lot of reflection on the fact that Rice is the highest ranking African-American woman in American political and diplomatic history. In many ways, her accomplishments are more remarkable than having an African-American male President. She only mentions its significance when having to defend President Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina and her participation in some of the strategic discussions around it.

Condi openly discusses dysfunction in the White House while she was the NSC Chair, where Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and herself all respected one another as people and were quite cordial, but didn't work effectively as a group. She is sharply critical of the hawkish V.P.'s office running its own fiefdom, of Rumsfeld's questioning her authority to do things NSC had always done, and Colin Powell's unwillingness to assert himself with the President and correct misunderstandings. She gives examples of how she had even had to tell the President not to undermine her. Strong woman.

There is the re-hashing of what we knew and didn't know about Al Qaeda prior to 9/11. The rehashing that it was a systemic failure stemming from both legal issues and bureaucracy. Resentment that Richard Clarke obtained celebrity status by arguing that the Bush Administration had taken its eye off the ball, when the record doesn't show what he says it shows.

She examines the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's WMD, and shows that international opinion and intelligence-- even from China and Russia-- were that Iraq would soon have a nuclear weapon. But she's critical of the Vice President's office for running with unfiltered reports from Europe, which we now know to be false, that Iraqi agents were meeting with agents of other states and acquiring WMD technology and material. VP's office comes across in this book as hawkish and as bullying as the stereotype. One disturbing story is that after the topple of Saddam, Cheney invited Scooter Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, and the President to a private party "celebrating the liberation of Iraq." Rice and Colin Powell were not invited-- it was both a snub to them and to the State Department, who were often insulted by Defense.

But the frustrating thing about reading these books by the Bush Administration is just the constant criticisms they are meant to address. Bush was much more forthright in his memoir about calling out specific Senators or columnists, their ignorance of the facts or their unfair criticisms. Dr. Rice, like Bush, relitigates the case for taking action against Saddam -- the 12+ previous U.N. resolutions that hadn't been complied with, the corruption of the international community in the oil-for-food scandal, the number of countries who believed Saddam was re-arming, the obstruction of weapons inspectors, Saddam's attempt to assassinate former President H.W. Bush, etc.

She contends that thousands of pages of research were dedicated to post-war Iraq-- how to deal with Baathists, the army, up to 2 million refugees, etc. She rejects criticism that there was no post-war strategy, only that turning over the post-war planning to the Defense Department was a big mistake. I think Condi is conspicuously silent about the transition of resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, that may be the biggest lack of introspection in the book. 

Like President Bush's memoir, the attempts at a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians is detailed; Condi contends Bush doesn't get near enough credit. I agree, not much is remembered of how close they came to a real agreement as Arafat was replaced by Abbas as Palestine's legitimate leader.

I found Condi's time as Secretary of State most interesting, how and why she reorganized the State Department as she did. One strength is that she enjoys budget proceedings and getting into the nitty-gritty of operations if she needs to. She also knows how to make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of priorities and message. During the Iraq surge, Condi grew frustrated with the lack of resources being devoted to the State Dept. at the same time the Defense Department was complaining that State wasn't doing enough. She considered requiring foreign service officers to serve in Iraq, and later held all appointments until the Iraq appointments were completely filled in order to get the best into Iraq.

Some raw emotion comes out in the book when in 2006-2007 she was trying to negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon. She is angry at Israeli actions which undermine her negotiations at the U.N. Security Council and perhaps angrier at Dick Cheney's office for apparently communicating behind her back to Israel that they should continue their war. She also discovers that Josh Bolton, U.N. Ambassador, has been passing along intelligence and communications to the Israelis without her knowledge. She swiftly and wisely pushes President Bush into an anti-hawk position to negotiate a peace.

In 2006, she almost resigned due to stress and a near panic attack on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Only a brief vacation saved her from that decision and gave her enough resolve to carry forward. At other points toward the end of her term as Secretary of State, such as to Greek opposition to allowing Macedonia to be admitted to the U.N. under the name "Macedonia," Condi loses her temper and snaps at someone. 

Relevant to current events: Russia's losing Ukraine in 1991 "was like the U.S. losing Texas, or one of the original 13 colonies." The Orange Revolution was a further blow. The Ukranians don't reciprocate in their love of Russia. Condi recalls conversations with Putin about democracy-- his view is, of course, quite different than most Americans. Revolutions and dramatic changes are dangerous and must be controlled. Putin's world views and helpfulness seem to have devolved from earlier meetings, as he becomes increasingly frustrating to deal with. (But she later became "furious" with Saakashvili after he overreached in an angry tirade in a joint press conference.)

In one of Putin's last appearances with the Secretary before ending his term as President (and becoming Prime Minister), he threatened Ukraine, reminding them that the eastern half was ethnically Russian. Rice reminds readers that Russia never recognized independent Kosovo, opposed its creation, and would have vetoed any U.N. resolution. The U.S. had to stand firm against Russia to get as many allies as possible to recognize Kosovo and normalize relations. During the Georgian conflict over South Ossetia, when Sergei Lavrov told Condi "just between us" that Saakashvili had to go as a condition of Russian withdrawal, she got on the phone and told everyone-- angering Lavrov. She told him that there is no such a "just between us" when a country demands the ouster of a democratically-elected leader.

Thoughts on Turkey: Abdullah Gül was Foreign Minister and Condi liked him, found him easier to talk to than PM Erdoğan. My own take: It seems the U.S. would likely favor Gül becoming Prime Minister as Gül speaks fluent English and seems more moderate and less political than Erdoğan.
Condi sees Turkey and the AKP as the great experiment of moderate Islamic Democracy.

Iran: Russia became more helpful with Iran after 2007. An attack on Iran was never on President Bush's table, no matter who advocated it. It was a non-starter. Rice's focus was on trying to unite our allies again.

There are plenty of other stories about Africa (for which Bush also doesn't get enough credit), North Korea (Bush was ready to officially end the Korean war and normalize relations in return for North Korea giving up its nuclear program), Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Latin America. Latin American free trade was pretty much dead politically, as was immigration reform which Rice advocates strongly. Latin America gets short shrift in U.S. diplomacy since so much is focused on Asia and the Middle East.

By the time the financial crisis hits, the Administration is essentially lame duck. While there was much to attract her attention, she was mainly on the sidelines for those last few months. 

I greatly enjoyed this book. There are doubtless criticisms of what Rice doesn't say in her book. But she comes across as a very knowledgeable academic, a good manager, and an effective communicator. I give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

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