The Magazine

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
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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.