Condi's Dangerous Years

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey

From the White House to Baghdad, how she waged the freedom war.

With Gaddafi killed, Mubarak ousted, and Obama's declaration last week that all troops will withdraw from Iraq by year's end, Condoleezza Rice's memoir could not appear at a more auspicious moment. It is the Bush administration's "Freedom Agenda" coming to its end, and in her book, she takes stock of that legacy.

Rice comes late to the memoir game: Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and even George W. Bush himself have all released their own versions. But she has never been one to follow the crowd. And you get the impression in No Higher Honor, as she narrates her ascent to the most important post in the cabinet, that at times the older guys just didn't know what hit them. That may be one reason that the likes of former vice president Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld have taken shots at Rice's management style and alleged emotionalism as they push their own books. (Rice says Rumsfeld is still a friend, in fact, but "grumpy.")

Today at her small house on a quiet side street near the campus of Stanford University, where she's back teaching, Rice is comfortable among her students and her cherished possessions: the baby-grand piano her parents gave her when she won a music competition at the age of 15, a massive first edition in Russian of War and Peace, a King James Bible that once belonged to her grandmother. But the edge is still there.

The headlines proclaim the end of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, pulled from a drainpipe and butchered by his own people. "Revolutions are not pretty," says Rice, "and I think we all have to remember that if political reform comes late, when there is a lot of anger, then it is not going to be either smooth or, frankly, look like we would like it to look." The ultimate outcome of the fight for democratic rights will be positive, she believes. Whatever the setbacks, she thinks the Freedom Agenda, which she did so much to create and implement, has changed the face of the Middle East.

"We pursued the Freedom Agenda not only because it was right but also because it was necessary," Rice writes in her book. "There is both a moral case and a practical one for the proposition that no man, woman, or child should live in tyranny. Those who excoriated the approach as idealistic or unrealistic missed the point. In the long run, it is authoritarianism that is unstable and unrealistic." So there's no sense dwelling on the final demise of tyrants, whether Gaddafi or, for that matter, Saddam Hussein, whose hanging turned into a hideous spectacle as well. "Time to move on," says Rice.

But the fascination of Rice's memoir, and it is fascinating, is less in the broad vision put forth for a more democratic world than in the gritty description of the way decisions were made in the White House and the State Department as the Bush administration sought to adapt to a universe radically changed by Al Qaeda's attacks on the United States in 2001.

Rice's account of the immediate aftermath, as seen from inside the halls of the White House, is both vivid and disturbing. The threat of a second wave of attacks was real. The possibility that biological or other weapons might be used seemed imminent: some lunatic had put anthrax in the mail; one report received at the White House said many of the people there might have been poisoned with botulinum toxin; another report said a plot was afoot to disseminate smallpox. The intelligence was rarely definitive, and it took a toll on everyone involved.

Rice is honest enough to say that at one point she was just about burned out. While attending a ceremony on the White House lawn soon after she became secretary of state, she saw an airliner approaching. It was on a normal route to land at Reagan National Airport, but for a few moments she thought it was coming straight toward the executive mansion. …