In the Driver's Seat
Condoleezza Rice and the jettisoning of the Bush Doctrine.
Jun 2, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 36 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Shortly before 10 A.M. on October 9, 2006, George W. Bush read a statement from the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House. He fixed his face to look resolute. The previous day, in spite of its many promises over many years to discontinue its nuclear program, North Korea had tested a nuclear weapon.
"The United States condemns this provocative act," Bush declared. "Once again North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond."
The American response came three weeks later, on October 31, when Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the government's chief negotiator on North Korea's nuclear program, met privately in Beijing with Kim Gye Gwan, North Korea's deputy foreign minister. The meeting itself was a major concession. Although Hill's boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had given him wide latitude for his negotiations she had not authorized a one-on-one meeting. The North Koreans had been pushing for bilateral negotiations with the United States since the beginning of the Bush administration. The president had repeatedly and categorically rejected any direct talks with the North Koreans.
In fact, he had reiterated this position at a press conference on October 11:
Christopher Hill didn't care. He had been authorized to meet with the North Koreans on the condition that the Chinese representative was also present. But when the Chinese diplomat conveniently left for an extended period of time, Hill continued the talks. The North Koreans wanted the United States to ease the financial pressures resulting from year-old sanctions on a bank in Macau involved in shady North Korean transactions. Hill gave them his word.
"The [North Koreans were] especially concerned that we address the situation of the financial measures that has, in their view, held up the talks for about a year now," Hill said following his meetings. "We agreed that we could--that we will find a mechanism within the six-party process to address these financial measures, that we would--it would probably be some kind of a working group to deal with this, and that we would try to address it that way."
Hill did not receive--indeed, did not ask for--any assurances that North Korea would refrain from conducting further tests. He did, however, get the North Koreans to return to the six-party talks. Hill characterized the meetings as "positive" and "very constructive." He seemed to be particularly encouraged that the North Koreans had reaffirmed their commitment "to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." But in a passing acknowledgment that the nuclear test three weeks earlier might have undermined the claim, Hill conceded that he was not yet ready to celebrate. "I have not broken out the cigars and champagne quite yet, believe me."
While the North Koreans did return to the six-party talks in December, they were not willing to cut any deals. From the outset they made clear that they were interested only in talking about easing the financial pressure that Hill had promised to address.
In January, Hill quietly set up another informal bilateral meeting with the North Koreans, this time with the blessing of his boss. Planning for the meeting, and for other aspects of North Korea policymaking, was limited to a small number of officials sympathetic to the softer line favored by Hill and Rice. Vice President Dick Cheney opposed the bilateral talks. He was joined by several key staffers on the National Security Council, at the Pentagon, and at the State Department. But "the North Korea process has been run outside the normal interagency," says a senior Bush administration official involved in the issue. Compared to other national security issues, this official says, the North Korea "policy does not get subjected to the same level of questioning in front of the president."
In a May 9, 2008, interview, Rice denied to me that she deliberately closed the circle of presidential advisers on North Korea. "I don't cut out people of my team," she said. "Anything that I've done with the president, I've done with [national security adviser] Steve Hadley, the vice president, and now, Bob Gates. So this has been very much an administration effort."
But confirmation of this gambit came from a reliable--if unexpected--source: Chris Hill. The busy diplomat made time to talk to Mike Chinoy, a former CNN reporter, for Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, a book to be published in August. Chinoy had access to many of the key characters in the drama that has unfolded over more than a decade. Despite his consistent condemnations of the U.S. government for its failure to be more conciliatory and his attempts to rationalize North Korean irrationality, Chinoy's book is very well sourced and impeccably reported. And though Hill is portrayed sympathetically, the narrative is unintentionally damning.
"To Hill, the Bush administration was still full of people who were opposed to negotiations, and who felt the mere act of speaking with foreigners displayed weakness," writes Chinoy. "So the leading hardliners--Vice President Cheney's office, the office of the secretary of defense, Robert Joseph, the outgoing undersecretary for arms control--were kept in the dark." According to Hill, documentation of the policy deliberations was discouraged, and in some cases the demands for secrecy originated with Rice. "Some of the minimal paperwork business is coming directly from the secretary," Hill told Chinoy. "She said, 'Bring it only to me.' "
But Rice did more than just approve Hill's proposal for another bilateral meeting with his North Korean counterparts. She took it directly to George W. Bush and sought to persuade him to reverse his unequivocal and very public rejection of such direct talks just three months earlier.
It worked. The president changed his mind. So three months after Bush threatened serious consequences for North Korea's continued intransigence, Hill and his team feted their North Korean counterparts with "friendly toasts" at a dinner in a private room at the Hilton Hotel in Berlin. "We pulled out all of the stops," a member of Hill's team told Chinoy, "because we wanted to demonstrate we were serious and sincere."
In many ways, George W. Bush's reluctant acceptance of bilateral talks with the North Koreans is the story of the latter half of his presidency.
Bush began his second term with the kind of bold, uncompromising vision that had characterized his first four years in office. The ultimate goal of U.S. policy, he proclaimed in his second inaugural address, is "ending tyranny in our world." Bush said: "My most solemn duty is to protect this nation and its people against further attacks and emerging threats. Some have unwisely chosen to test America's resolve, and have found it firm."
But that speech is better understood in retrospect as a coda to his first term than a bridge to the current one. In the second term, those who have chosen to test America's resolve--the Iranians, the Syrians, the North Koreans--have often found it less than firm.
There are several reasons for this. Most obviously, the effects of the war in Iraq. At first, the ripple effects from that intervention seemed to have been what the Bush team predicted. Just as the fall of Baghdad after three weeks demonstrated the dominance of American military power, the decision to remove Saddam Hussein indicated the willingness of George W. Bush to make good on his threats. Syria's Bashar al-Assad, worried that he would be next, authorized his intelligence services to increase their assistance to the CIA. Libya's Muammar Qaddafi voluntarily gave up his own WMD programs, telling Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi that he did not want to be the next Saddam Hussein. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hinted at more open elections, and there were municipal elections in Saudi Arabia. But the troubles in Iraq mounted--from the intelligence failures on weapons of mass destruction to the continued presence of more than 100,000 U.S. troops--and seemed to limit the Bush administration's options.
So Bush has lowered his expectations and, more than three years later, has mostly abandoned the tough-guy rhetoric that characterized his first term. No one has played a larger role in this shift than Condoleezza Rice, who has been the most influential member of Bush's foreign policy and national security team since her promotion to the post of chief diplomat. "Her influence on the president is total," says one senior Bush administration official.
In a Foreign Affairs article she authored back in 2000 as a representative of the Bush presidential campaign, Rice criticized the Clinton administration for a foreign policy so obsessed with diplomacy that it seemed to disregard U.S. national interests. "Multilateral agreements and institutions should not be ends in themselves," she warned. Today, her critics claim that Rice has lost sight of her own admonition. "We have gone from a policy of preemption to a policy of preemptive capitulation," says a disillusioned State Department official.
Rice began the first term at a disadvantage among the members of Bush's national security team. Cheney, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld each brought decades of foreign policy and national security experience at the highest levels of U.S. government. Rice, a Russia specialist, came to the administration from Stanford University, where she was provost. She was a distinguished academic, but her highest level of government service came when she served on the staff of the National Security Council under George H.W. Bush.
But September 11, 2001, blurred such distinctions. After the service at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, Rice flew by helicopter to Camp David with Rumsfeld to join Powell and Cheney. Bush had suggested that this group--Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Rice--spend the evening discussing the coming war and the challenges they would face together. They started over buffalo steak and continued for hours.
"We had dinner together, and there was a kind of, you know, it was a kind of sense that these were people who had been together before, you know, they'd seen a lot together before, but they hadn't seen this," Rice recalled to me in an interview in August 2006.
This was different, and it was palpable in the room, in the conversation. It wasn't so much anything was spoken, because it was sharing stories about the Gulf War, sharing stories--but you could just . . . I think I could sense there was . . . I'm trying to find the right word. Tension isn't the right word, but anxiety. Anxiety."
I asked about her place in the group, and whether she felt left out because Cheney, Powell, and Rumsfeld knew each other well. She cut me off before I could finish the question.
Rice was not a bystander in the administration deliberations in the weeks and months after 9/11, but she did little to shape the major decisions that came in response. She was, in effect, a referee mediating the now-legendary disputes that featured on one side Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and the State bureaucracy, and, on the other, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and the Pentagon bureaucracy. (In reality, of course, the sides did not always line up quite as neatly as the early narrative histories would suggest. There were plenty of times when, say, Cheney and Rumsfeld disagreed, and many more when Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz found themselves on opposite sides of one strategic decision or another. Rice, though, was almost always the referee.)
Part of this was a function of her job; the national security adviser runs the process. But according to several officials who worked with her, Rice had a deep insecurity about her own views. Several current and former colleagues criticized her management, accusing her of trying to find agreement among senior officials where there was none. "One day there would be a fight about something and the next day she would say there was an 'emerging consensus.' But it was a false consensus. She tried to protect the president by keeping him from making hard decisions and overruling his advisers. That's what a president does."
Rice, though, grew increasingly close to Bush. Their professional relationship blossomed into a warm personal friendship. Unmarried and without close family, Rice often spends holidays and weekends with George and Laura Bush. No one in the Bush administration has socialized with the president as much as Rice. "She was at Camp David nearly every weekend they were there," says an administration official.
Bush is comfortable around Rice. He will raise his voice to her in a way that he would never consider with Robert Gates or Cheney. "It's almost like a platonic boyfriend-girlfriend relationship," says one close observer. "It's very emotional." Rice showed a knack for anticipating where Bush would end up on an issue and getting there first, in effect advising him to do what he was almost certain to do. "She was a mirror," says an official who worked closely with her.
On January 18, 2005, Rice sat calm and poised at a long table before more than a dozen U.S. senators arrayed in a semicircle in front of her. Two months earlier, the president had nominated her to be secretary of state. The crowd in the hearing room--216 of the Hart Senate office building--was standing room only. After a brief introduction from then-Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Richard Lugar, a much longer series of extemporaneous remarks from Joseph Biden, and an effusive endorsement from Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein from California, it was finally Rice's turn to talk.
It was a difficult balance. She had to defend President Bush, and most especially his decision to remove Saddam Hussein--a decision that was increasingly unpopular. She needed to demonstrate an understanding that the war was not going well but, as a member of the national security team responsible, be careful about giving ammunition to critics of the president. She gave a masterful performance, displaying a strong grasp of the issues she was likely to face and offering a spirited defense of the Bush administration and her role in it.
"The time for diplomacy is now," she declared, articulating each word carefully for emphasis. (It was not the only time she would use the phrase.) It was a clever message, open to different interpretations. One thing, however, was not ambiguous: Rice intended to signal a new American attitude toward the world and coming changes in the way the Bush administration would conduct foreign policy. She had added the words to her opening statement herself, and it is clear that she meant them.
When asked about the accomplishments of her time as secretary, Rice demurs, saying it's too early for judgments. "I think we'll wait until we're done to see where we end up," she says.
Pressed for three areas of improvement, Rice begins with the big picture and moves to specifics. "I think we have changed dramatically both the alignment in the Middle East and the expectations of what the Middle East should be and will be," she says. "I would be the first to say that we won't be able to deliver the fully formed, different Middle East. But I think what's expected of it and where it's headed is fundamentally different than when we came. And it's been turbulent and it's been difficult. But when I hear people talking about the stable Middle East that we've disrupted, I have to ask them, 'What stability was that?' "
She goes on,
Is the improvement in our relations with our European allies due to the fact that we have pursued more conciliatory--some might say, more European--diplomatic policies since the beginning of her tenure? Rice sees more continuity than change. "The first term set up what we've been able to do in the second term."
Among the first challenges for the new secretary of state and her new diplomacy in the second term was an old problem: Iraq. "I know people didn't like the fact that we liberated Iraq," she said to me in May. "It was the right thing to do. But in 2005, we weren't dealing with questions of whether we should have liberated Iraq; we were dealing with questions of how to help the political transition in Iraq and reintegrate Iraq into the international system."
Getting support from erstwhile U.S. allies on Iraq proved difficult. And although the Iraqis held three successful elections in 2005 and began to stumble their way towards democracy, the worsening security problems there meant that the State Department necessarily played a secondary role to the Pentagon. While State was in the process of establishing a huge presence in Baghdad, across Iraq the uniformed military were America's de facto diplomats.
In 2006, faced with mounting security problems and increasing ethnic violence among Iraqis, President Bush began to consider a wholesale change of strategy in Iraq. Proposals ranged from a reduction and redeployment of troops mostly outside of Iraq (not unlike the plan pushed by several Democrats) to a "surge" of troops to Iraq and significant changes in the mission. Cheney favored the surge; Rice did not.
Several current and former Bush administration officials say that Rice opposed the surge and favored a reduction in U.S. troops in Iraq. In interagency deliberations Rice frequently suggested the surge would do little more than antagonize Bush's allies--domestic and foreign--and result in higher casualties. Philip Zelikow, a top aide to Rice and former State Department counselor, circulated a strategy paper that proposed among other things reducing U.S. troop presence and pulling back from urban areas.
I recently asked Rice if she opposed the surge and advocated a pullback of American troops.
Pressed on whether it was inaccurate to say that she was opposed to the surge, she responded:
On January 10, 2007, in a national address from the White House library, Bush announced the surge. The failure to secure Baghdad, he said, came because there were not enough U.S. troops and too many restrictions on the ones there. Bush told the nation that he would be sending 20,000 additional troops--five brigades--to Iraq. It is one of the few major policy battles Rice has lost during the second term. But by then Rice had other equally pressing priorities: resolving the nuclear standoffs with North Korea and Iran and pushing forward on the creation of a Palestinian state.
Trying to broker Middle East peace is of course something that secretaries of state do almost as a matter of course as their time in office comes to an end. But by taking on the diplomatic challenges presented by North Korea and Iran, Rice was revisiting issues that had generated some of George W. Bush's most uncompromising positions of the first term, expressed in some of his most aggressive rhetoric. It took a war to eliminate the threat presented by the first member of the "axis of evil," and five years later American troops are still fighting to allow Iraqis to consolidate that victory. Rice's ambitious objective was to handle the remaining two-thirds of that ignominious group with words.
Bush had accompanied his warning about the "axis of evil" with a solemn pledge. "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," he vowed. "Time is not on our side," he cautioned.
In the race to prevent Iran and North Korea from going nuclear, nothing is more important than time. And six years is a lot of time. In the period since Bush made those comments there has been a seemingly endless series of multilateral negotiations aimed at retarding these programs or ending them altogether. There has been the EU-3, the P-5+1, the six-party talks, and numerous other ad hoc negotiating partnerships. And while these have undeniably made efforts more difficult for both rogue states, the fact is that six years after Bush's speech, North Korea is a nuclear power and Iran is either on the brink, if you believe the Israelis and the French, or making substantial progress, if you believe the CIA.
In both cases, despite our increasingly desperate attempts to convince them to take these negotiations seriously, their behavior became more provocative. And in each case, the State Department has gone out of its way to avoid dealing with these provocations lest they jeopardize our diplomacy.
Iran has been arming, equipping, and training insurgents in Iraq. Their support for anti-coalition forces began before the war, when they allowed foreign fighters to transit freely between Iran and northern Iraq. For the last two years, the U.S. military has been laying out evidence of Iranian terrorist activity in Iraq. The State Department, too, has accused Iran of supporting terrorism that is killing American soldiers. "The Iranians are supplying very sophisticated IED technology to Shia insurgent and Shia terrorist groups that has, in turn, been used against American and British soldiers, and has led to the death of some of our soldiers over the last six to eight months," said Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, the department's third-ranking official, back in October 2006.
These are, of course, acts of war. But, while State Department officials have joined the rest of the Bush administration in publicizing the Iranian activity, there have been few signs that the Iranians are paying a price for killing our soldiers. For the most part, the Bush administration has been content to decouple Iran's support for terror--in Iraq and more broadly--from its pursuit of nuclear weapons, to make a "distinction between terrorists and those who knowingly harbor or provide aid to them" that the president said in 2002 we would never make.
At a speech in Davos in January 2008, Rice made sharp distinctions.
Although she listed three "real differences" with the Iranian regime, she suggested such differences might be manageable and offered the prospect of a "new, more normal relationship" if Iran would address just one of them.
In our recent interview, I asked her directly if we would negotiate with Iran even while they are killing American soldiers in Iraq.
Iran was not the only rogue state eager to test the Bush administration. For more than a decade, North Korea has been developing nuclear weapons and lying to the world about it. Each new supposed "deal" with the North Koreans results in real concessions from the West--fuel oil, food aid, and the like--and phony concessions from the regime of Kim Jong Il. The Clinton administration worked under "The Agreed Framework," a deal that delivered generous assistance in exchange for North Korea shutting down its plutonium efforts at a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and submitting to monitoring and verification from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Agreed Framework fell apart in 2002 when the U.S. confronted North Korea about the fact that it had launched a clandestine effort to enrich uranium, a program that had existed for years without detection. It was not North Korea's only clandestine operation.
In April 2007, the director of national intelligence called the ranking members of congressional intelligence and foreign affairs committees in for a meeting. They were not told what was on the agenda--a fact that suggested it was serious. It was.
Despite strong warnings from the United States in the past, the North Koreans had provided assistance to Syria in its efforts to build a nuclear reactor. Information was sketchy, but the facility looked to be modeled after the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon and construction appeared to be in advanced stages. There was no question that the North Koreans were at least sharing nuclear technology with the Syrians. The congressional leaders were told to keep the information "close hold" and forbidden from sharing it with their colleagues on the intelligence and foreign affairs committees. They agreed, and over the course of the summer attended additional briefings.
Bush administration officials were divided about what, if anything, to do in response. The Israelis communicated a strong inclination to take out the Syrian facility that heightened the disagreements on Bush's national security team. Rice was concerned about the diplomatic consequences of approving a preemptive strike. Cheney, who once signed a photograph to Israeli general David Ivri thanking him for taking out Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, favored it.
On September 6, 2007, Israeli jets bombed the Syrian facility. The initial news reports were maddeningly vague and very few people understood what had happened and why. Inside the U.S. government, the debate intensified. The congressional leaders who had been briefed on the program wanted to learn more about the strikes and wanted to be able to share what they knew with their colleagues. Bush administration officials, however, continued to insist that the information be restricted to the small group that had been previously briefed.
In internal deliberations, Hill and Rice, concerned that public disclosure of North Korea's involvement could derail the six-party talks, argued for keeping the information secret. Stephen Hadley, Rice's former deputy and current national security adviser, broke the news to the lawmakers.
Two of the Republicans who had been briefed, Representatives Peter Hoekstra and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, took the unprecedented step of venting their frustrations in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. They opened the article by noting that the State Department had been publicly touting its diplomatic progress with North Korea. Then they wrote:
Their language tracked closely with the warning Bush had given the North Koreans immediately after their nuclear test in 2006. "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or nonstate entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States," Bush had said, "and we would hold North Korea fully accountable."
When I asked Rice about this on May 9, I started by making the simple observation that we're in the middle of some pretty intense times with North Korea. The previous day, the Wall Street Journal editorial page had criticized Rice on North Korea. She jumped in before I could ask a question.
The U.S. continues to ship massive amounts of fuel oil to North Korea, under the agreement that shut down the Yongbyon reactor, while the State Department attempts to coax further cooperation by raising the possibility that sanctions on North Korea imposed through the "Trading with the Enemy Act" might be lifted and that North Korea could be taken off the list of countries that sponsor terror, a move that would open the doors to billions in aid and loans with the potential to breathe life into the anemic North Korean economy.
We are sending other conciliatory messages, too. Earlier this year, the State Department helped make arrangements for the New York Philharmonic to perform in Pyongyang, an unprecedented bit of cultural diplomacy with Kim Jong Il's regime. And just last week, the United States announced 500 metric tons of food aid to North Korea.
But what about proliferation and the full accountability President Bush threatened after North Korea's nuclear test? Will they be punished? Rice says that while they've been worried for a long time about North Korea's nuclear proliferation, she is looking forward.
While these issues are not insignificant, to many analysts they reflect the myopia of diplomats so eager for a deal that they are missing the big picture. "In the six-party talks we are ready to declare preemptive victory without any serious change in North Korea's direction, including on nuclear weapons and programs, proliferation, and human rights or wrongs," says David Asher, former coordinator of the State Department's North Korea Working Group. "A declaration that only tells us what we already know--perhaps because someone has coached them on what to say--is worthless, as is a deal that looks past the existential threats that matter most to our security--weapons, proliferation, and clandestine production."
And Pete Hoekstra, the vice chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, still has lots of questions. "If they're proliferating to Syria, who else? Where else could there be a North Korea-designed reactor that we don't know about? What else might North Korea be doing?"
A senior Republican in the House says the Bush administration is too focused on getting a deal and offers this blunt assessment: "We've been down this road before--Clinton did it, now Bush is doing it. It doesn't seem to matter for the State Department. These are legacy deals, and legacy deals are bad deals."
There are times that the president seems to understand this. One of those moments came back on October 11, 2006, at a press conference after the North Korean nuclear test. Bush was defending his commitment to diplomacy and spoke of the need to work with allies. When "dangerous regimes" fail to honor their prior commitments or serially reject generous offers to strike new ones, he said, "It ought to say to all the world that we're dealing with people that maybe don't want peace."
Rice believes we are now in the early stages of a new, important historical moment, not unlike the one that came with the end of the Cold War. "I was lucky enough the last time around to be here at the end of a big, historical transformation," she says. "And of course, it's very heartening, and heady even, to complete the liberation of Eastern Europe or complete the unification of Germany or, ultimately, complete the collapse of the Soviet Union. But you recognize the foundation for that was laid in the 1940s."
The Bush administration is pursuing policies now, she says, that will lay the groundwork for big things to come. "I tend to think of foreign policy, particularly when you're at the beginning of a big, historical transformation, as being something" where you try to lay "a foundation rather than trying to complete."
Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (HarperCollins).