In his thoughtful essay on Condoleezza Rice in The Weekly Standard, Stephen Hayes first describes her early years in the White House as a period of insecurity, then presents her, after becoming secretary of state, as a forceful advocate of diplomacy rather than military action (she was, if not vigorously opposed to the surge, certainly unenthusiastic, for example).
Here’s Hayes’s portrait of Condi as national security adviser:
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…
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.”
At the time, I wrote that Bush’s NSC was ineffectual, precisely because of Condi’s constant search for consensus on every issue. Rather than bringing the “now-legendary disputes” to the president for resolution, she instructed the disputing agencies to find common ground, to split their differences, and to settle on some compromise. At a minimum, this had the damaging effect of delaying the definition of our strategy; at worst, it paralyzed policy for months on end.
Hayes blames Condi for this, but I think he gives her too much discredit; it’s the president’s fault. She must have discussed this process with him, and he must have concurred–if not ordered the procedure. No one can believe that he was “protected” from the disagreements; experienced professionals like Powell and Rumsfeld surely found ways to discuss their issues directly with the president. If the national security adviser was not bringing the disagreements to the president, it was because the president did not want to resolve them. You can’t explain it away by reference to Condi’s state of mind.
In contrast, Reagan’s security advisers defined the disagreements as best they could, and then took them to the Oval Office. Sometimes Reagan simply made a decision, sometimes he asked for the principals to come in an debate it in front of him, and sometimes he finessed it. But the process was considerably faster than under W, and the NSC was generally quite certain about what the president wanted.
I think this is demonstrated by Condi’s tenure at Foggy Bottom. For one thing, her deputy, Steve Hadley, was kept on as her successor, effectively guaranteeing that she would dominate the NSC as no secretary of state had since Kissinger (who similarly arranged for his factotum, Brent Scowcroft, to be elevated to the top post). That is not the action of an insecure policy maker, it’s evidence of someone who knows how to run the system.
What’s so disappointing about Condi is her refusal to come to grips with our real problems, and her refuge in the slogans of diplomacy and multilateralism. When Hayes presses her on our lack of forceful action against Iran, she first brags about the steps against Iranian financial institutions (she rightly praises State and Treasury, but oddly leaves out Defense and the Intelligence Community, which have been key players as well). Then she brags about the recent arrest of a Quds Force officer in Iraq, prompting Hayes, who is not impressed, to ask her why we aren’t doing more than asking the mullahs to stop killing our guys in Iraq (he might have added Afghanistan, too, but didn’t). She says:
RICE: We’re not saying, “Please don’t kill our soldiers.” We’re saying, “Don’t kill our soldiers or your people won’t be safe in Iraq.” That’s a slightly different message. And not only are we saying that, we’re doing it.
TWS: Are there other examples besides the capture in Irbil where we are saying to Iran not only don’t do this, but, “Here are the consequences. Look, you can see the consequences”?
RICE: Well, there are lots of consequences, I mean, many of which, of course, happen in military operations that I’m not going to talk about. But we’re on the hunt for them all the time.
In other words, we’re simply playing defense in Iraq, and financially squeezing the Islamic Republic. I wish Hayes had asked her, “what ever happened to regime change? Don’t we want that in Tehran and Damascus?”
So far as I know, she has always said we do not want regime change, we want a change in behavior. A happy thought, to be sure, but not likely to happen so long as our only targets are the terrorists armed, trained and funded by the Iranians, and not the Islamic Republic itself.
But again, at the end of the day it’s the president who makes those decisions, no matter how fond he is of the secretary of state.