Bush's secret weapon

Condoleezza Rice discusses her candidate's strong foreign policy convictions, but it's clear she's the brains of the operation.

Published March 20, 2000 2:00PM (EST)

As much as Americans like to ignore foreign policy -- and did, for the most part, during the primary battles -- the next president will be tested often in this area. Now that George W. Bush has clinched the Republican nomination, attention has turned to those who would be in his cabinet. His chief foreign policy advisor, Condoleezza Rice, has come under increasing scrutiny.

Rice would be a daring choice for secretary of state, given that she's only 45 and shy on high-level diplomatic experience. But if Bush wins, she would be in line for that or another top job. Bush's many foreign policy gaffes guarantee he will face heavy pressure to prove he's smarter on world affairs than he sounds.

Rice, a Russia expert and former Stanford University provost, went to work in the White House in 1989 as National Security Council director of Soviet and East European Affairs, and stayed until March 1991. If words like "lightweight" keep coming up to describe Rice's candidate, no one has described her that way.

Jay Nordlinger predicted last summer in the National Review that given her combination of charm, intelligence and charisma, she will be "rock-star big" if she were to become our first African-American secretary of state. "A major cultural figure, adorning the bedroom walls of innumerable kids and the covers of innumerable magazines."

Former President Bush could not have been more flattering in introducing Rice to Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1989. "This is Condoleezza Rice," he said. "She tells me everything I know about the Soviet Union." Rice is indeed tight with the governor. A report released last week listing the names of overnight guests at the governor's mansion showed Rice to be one of the most frequent visitors.

In a recent phone interview, Rice recalled her rise to political renown. She was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1954, and since both parents were teachers, education was a major theme of her youth. So was faith. Her father, John Rice, was an ordained Presbyterian minister, as well as dean of Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, and later vice chancellor of the University of Denver. He was also a Republican who influenced the political thinking of his daughter, who calls herself an "all-over-the-map Republican." Rice considers herself "very conservative" on foreign policy but "almost shockingly libertarian" or "moderate" on some issues.

A gifted student who skipped two grades, Rice enrolled at the University of Denver when she was 15, and graduated when she was 19. She gave up on a career as a pianist midway through, and eventually wound up falling under the spell of Josef Korbel, a former Czech diplomat best known for being the father of Madeleine Albright. Rice sometimes dined at the Korbel home, along with the future secretary of state -- but emerged with views much more in line with Korbel's than Albright's.

"I am a realist," she told the National Review. "Power matters. But there can be no absence of moral content in American foreign policy, and, furthermore, the American people wouldn't accept such an absence. Europeans giggle at this and say we're naive and so on, but we're not Europeans, we're Americans -- and we have different principles."

Rice balances a knack for making her presence felt without being aggressive. "She doesn't seem to try to push herself forward in any particular way," former Secretary of State George Shultz told Time magazine last year. "But she has such a level of capability ... that she winds up getting asked to do all sorts of things."

Where other Republican foreign policy intellectuals have often gone out of their way to offend people (anyone remember Jeane Kirkpatrick?), Rice mixes confidence and a light touch, as she made clear in a recent interview. Recalling the time she met Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, at a reception (when Putin was working for the mayor of St. Petersburg), Rice insisted he would not remember her. Right. No doubt he meets smart, charming, Russian-speaking Americans with names like Condoleezza all the time. (The name, by the way, came from her mother, like Rice a pianist, who made a variation on the musical direction con dolcezza, or "with sweetness.")

Rice also likes to pay her respects, as she did in naming Harry Truman her man of the century to Time. He "somehow made sense of what America's role in the world ought to be under the most difficult of circumstances, when it would have been easy for the United States to withdraw," she said. "I look to the people of that era in amazement and wonderment at what they were able to do."

She first came to Stanford in 1981 as a fellow in the arms control and disarmament program after earning a master's from Notre Dame and a doctorate from the University of Denver's graduate school of international studies.

Her mentor at Stanford, Coit Blacker, has described what intrigued her academic colleagues about her. "I think what struck people at the time was a combination of all the personal stuff -- charm and very gracious personality," Blacker, deputy director of Stanford's Institute for International Studies, recently told the Stanford Daily. He said Rice possesses "a kind of intellectual agility mixed with velvet-glove forcefulness."

Rice has received several offers to become president of a university, a natural step after her successful run as a No. 2 official at Stanford. Instead she responded to an appeal that came in a quintessentially Bush-family setting. In 1998 she had her first serious talk with the governor while visiting the family in Kennebunkport. The Bushes invited her to come fishing off the Maine coast.

"I don't get seasick, but I also don't like the water very much and I most certainly don't fish," she said. "I let President and Governor Bush fish and I sat and talked. We talked a lot about the state of the American armed forces and ballistic missile defense." The son, she said, has an edgier style than the father. "Governor Bush is somewhat more interactive. He tends to press the speaker to answer questions almost in a kind of rapid-fire manner."

Rice is loyal, and has talked often of her affection for President Bush, whose role in ending the Cold War has been understated, she insists. She and Gov. Bush by all accounts have an easy, friendly rapport, and she serves his campaign in part because she likes the man. Predictably, she also argues there's much more substance to Bush than people think.

"He came into the discussion of foreign policy with some very strong views already, some very strong values," she said. "Free trade is in his bones. He's the governor of Texas, he's watched how NAFTA has improved both the Texan and Mexican economies. He believes very strongly in that. That has not changed. What has happened is as he has looked at more and more areas of the world, I think he has seen how free trade can be a valuable tool in places he had not encountered to the degree he had Mexico.

"A strong national defense was a bedrock for him when we first started, as well as a ballistic missile defense. I think there, as we had early discussions, he got very seized with the reform agenda in defense, that is not just buying what we were buying in the Cold War but really changing the structure and character of the American armed forces. I think that he always had very strong views that allies matter, that you lead your foreign and diplomatic policy from a point of strength if you start with those who share your values and share your intentions."

Rice gives Clinton's team credit for success in Northern Ireland and (maybe) the Middle East. But like most everyone else, Rice slams the Clinton administration for its "ad hoc" foreign policy. As a telling example, she points to the U.S. diplomatic effort in talks between Kosovo Albanians and Yugoslavia in Rambouillet, France, last April, a failure the New York Times dubbed a "debacle." "Diplomacy is fine, but you shouldn't have a kind of confused diplomacy in which you're going in and trying to broker between two parties," she said. "You have to have some demands and follow up on them. I thought Rambouillet was flawed from the beginning."

But sometimes Rice's take on big issues does not seem much different from where the administration stands. Her position reflects the current mood among the U.S. leadership to oppose "open-ended deployments and unclear military missions," as Bush put it in his September speech at the Citadel.

Rice's brand of hard-headed moderation may come through most clearly on the topic of China. She has a habit of balancing contradicting concerns in a way that neutralizes both, but at the same time she's not afraid to make a point more pungently than many top-level diplomats would. "I think China essentially resents the American presence in the Pacific," she said.

"We should have every desire to try and promote and encourage and support the changes going on in China," she said. "I believe trade is one way to do that. To the degree that you can support a burgeoning entrepreneurial class in China, to the degree that you can use the WTO and other trade levers to open up the Chinese economy, I think you do something good not just for the world economy but also for political change in China."

Clinton, she said, was not so much wrong on China, as Clintonesque.

"This is a place where the Clinton administration has been confused," she said. "At the time the president was elected in 1992 the Chinese were the butchers of Beijing, which is what he accused President Bush of doing, coddling the 'butchers of Beijing.' Then a year later China was going to be our strategic partner. Then a year after that we barely made a stir when the first stories about Chinese stealing of American nuclear secrets came out, but we brought [Chinese Prime Minister] Zhu Rongji to the country to sign the WTO agreement and pulled the rug out from under him.

"No wonder the Chinese are confused. You need a consistent policy with China." The Clinton administration, she said, "has not acted consistently."

Long before the war in Chechnya was making front-page news, Rice was calling the Russian campaign there a "very brutal war" and warning that it could get even more brutal if the Russian generals push it to the limit. "I don't think that Russia is going to succeed in simultaneously treating the Chechen people this way and subduing them in some sense, and then govern them," she said.

But she's careful not to close any doors to diplomacy. She said of Putin's KGB background, "Let's be fair, they are all [former] apparatchiks in Russia at this point. At one time, anyone who is getting elected at this time was an apparatchik. I think we have to wait and see if this is an apparatchik who might be able to take the country forward."

Despite this optimism, she worries that Putin came to power "largely on the heels of a kind of a war fever in Russia about Chechnya" and that once in office, he made a point of talking about his support for the military. "Putin owes a lot to the Russian military," she said. "He was an unknown, unheard-of and unheralded hand-picked prime minister by Yeltsin until this war in Chechnya made him popular."

Russia, she said, clearly remains a great power in any sense of the term, even though it is obviously in decline in power compared to the Soviet period. "But it has all the attributes of a great power, population, military potential and strength," she said. "It even has economic resources which, while untapped, would certainly give it economic clout to make it a great power if it were better managed."

Key to Rice's strategy is the refusal to underestimate the other players in the game. She seems to understand something current Secretary of State Albright did not about the realities of wielding superpower influence: Even giants have to get everything in order before they assert their will internationally.

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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China George W. Bush Russia U.s. Military