Condoleezza Rice: Will Work for Legacy

Condoleezza Rice talks about her legacy — and her next move.

By Philip Weiss
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Photo: Martin Schoeller)
She was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, by parents who worked in the segregated high school system. (Her father was a guidance counselor and football coach; her mother taught science and music.) The "Yes we can" refrain of the Barack Obama campaign could have been the theme of Rice’s youth, when she pushed herself to be a figure skater, a concert pianist and, finally, a Sovietologist. She entered one formerly white world after another, impressing virtually everyone she met. "She’s brilliant," says former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who first met Rice 20 years ago. After receiving tenure as a political science professor at Stanford, she served president Bush Sr. in a variety of national security roles, returned to Stanford as provost in 1993, and headed back to Washington in 2001 to be national security adviser to George W. Bush.Rice’s critics claim that her scholarly work was middling and say that as a policymaker she has been more tactician than strategist, with no grander vision than to carry out her boss’s plans. In the first years of the Bush administration, they say, she suppressed her own "realist" instincts — to talk with our enemies, because the world is a wild, dangerous place — in favor of the more simplistic Bush policy of refusing to negotiate with "evil."Yet it is her adaptability that has allowed Rice to move past mentors like Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft and sidestep Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, reshaping her role into that of "confidante to a president who was unsteeped in foreign policy," Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s former chief of staff, says. "They would go backdoor to the Oval to the president, and she wasn’t going to win. [So] she made a conscious decision to spend more time with the president and less time in the National Security Agency battling the decision process."That strategy is paying off for her, Wilkerson says. "She’s wrested the president away from the vice president and achieved some victories that have gone unheralded." He cites as one example Rice’s work to build a strategic relationship with Turkey.Now, as she and the president near the end of their tenure, Rice is trying to forge a late-term deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. "I think this has been her crusade," says Scowcroft, who is said to have been disappointed by his erstwhile protege’s support for the Iraq war. "She has worked particularly hard at it. She’s done a terrific job; her patience and determination have gotten us this far. I really think she has brought the president along." Author and activist Phyllis Bennis, a leading critic of the Iraq war, says Rice "is the one who has apparently taken the lead with her many visits to the [Mideast] region." But Bennis wonders about Rice’s motives: "She was desperate, and remains so, to transform her legacy. Bush’s is a legacy of failure. And she’s a young woman. She’s got another career or several in front of her." Bush may assume history will absolve him, Bennis adds. "But I don’t think Condoleezza Rice is prepared to wait for history."Brokering a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the Holy Grail of international relations, and some doubt Rice’s ability to achieve it. "It’s never smart to be overly predictive or even overly optimistic about the prospects for Middle East peace," Rice concedes. "But I do think some conditions are different now." Both sides, she says, are committed to a two-state solution. "And I think that they have, over the past several years, come to know President Bush as a man of his word … and have come to trust him and therefore believe they want to try to get this done during his remaining time in office."Her Next MoveRice is only 53, and as Bennis says, there are likely to be several more chapters, and perhaps several more transformations, to come. At times during our interview, Rice seems to be weighing the merits of a return to academia: "It’s nice sometimes to be in a position where you can get up every day and try to do something [about the state of the world] — and sometimes it’s nice to be in a position where you can find it fascinating and try to analyze it from afar." Rice insists she’s not as driven as people think.

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