What the 9/11 commission won't ask

The inside story of how Condoleezza Rice destroyed the Middle East peace process.

Sidney Blumenthal
April 8, 2004 9:53PM (UTC)

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice is to be questioned in public only about the Bush administration's policy -- or lack of it -- on terrorism before 9/11. But her negligence and incompetence encompass the entirety of the Bush foreign policy.

The story of Rice's role in the destruction of the Middle East peace process has never been told. Yet it is impossible to understand the far-reaching impact of her ineptitude on the general crisis engulfing U.S. foreign policy without knowing of her previously undisclosed actions in a secretive administration. The pattern of her conduct and the president's on the Middle East is of a piece with the carefully arranged disregard of terrorism despite all warnings before 9/11.


The national security advisor is the central organizer of foreign policy for the president. All information flows through and is coordinated and shaped by the advisor, whose power, as advisors from Henry Kissinger to Sandy Berger have demonstrated, comes in part from immediate proximity to the president within the West Wing of the White House. Rice quickly became more than President Bush's preferred briefer. Single and single-minded in her devotion, she is among his most intimate aides, accompanying him and the first lady on their weekends to Camp David.

In January 2002, Rice launched a serious effort to restart the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. She hired Flynt Leverett, who was a professional foreign service officer on the policy planning staff of the State Department, as director of the initiative on the National Security Council. Rice told him and those assigned to work with him that she understood that the absence of peace process was hurting the war on terrorism and that Leverett should propose any and all measures he thought necessary, regardless of potential political controversy. "She told us we should go for the long bomb, using a football metaphor," Leverett recalled to me.

Leverett then developed a plan on final status dealing with security, Palestinian political reform and Jerusalem; the core of the plan was essentially the same as President Clinton's ultimate proposal. Rice rejected it; her own mandated team had come up with something she judged as "unworkable" and politically untenable for Bush, who would have been forced to confront Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to enact it.


On April 4, Bush delivered a speech calling for a "two state" solution, but without any details, and sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region. Leverett traveled with him. Powell gained agreement for the basic outline of the original plan, but just as he was to announce his breakthrough in a press conference Rice intervened, instructing him not to discuss any political process and that the whole burden of accountability must be put on the Palestinians and none on the Israelis. In private, Powell seethed but did not fight Rice.

Rice had crumbled in the face of internal political opposition from the neoconservative armada. "In the end, the neoconservatives in the Pentagon and the vice president's office, plus Karl Rove's political shop, prevailed," Leverett told me. The American Jewish lobby was less a factor than the religious right of Christian Zionists, an electoral bloc in Bush's base, represented internally by Rove. Rove emerges not simply as a fixer or tactician, but as a foreign policy decision-maker aligned with the neocons by means of this connection.

Undeterred, Leverett turned to work on what became known as "the road map." On July 31, Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher met with Rice to urge support for the road map. "Condi says, no, all you get is a speech, no plan," said Leverett. The next day King Abdullah came to see the president, bringing his foreign minister with him to the Oval Office. First, Abdullah made the argument for the road map and then asked Muasher to repeat what he had told Rice. "Condi had told the president nothing of her conversation," said Leverett, who was present. Bush instantly remarked to him about Abdullah's proposal: "Good idea, let's see what we can do on that." Leverett says, "That was the origin of the road map."


By November, the road map was ready to be publicly released. But Sharon opposed it, claiming that proposing it would amount to interference in the upcoming Israeli election. Leverett argued to Rice: "We had promised to put it out to everyone. If we pull it now we reverse a commitment and would be intervening in Israeli politics in another way. That argument was not appreciated by Condi. So they didn't put out the road map." It was only under pressure from Prime Minister Tony Blair, as a precondition to his alliance on the eve of the Iraq invasion, that Bush at last announced the road map on March 14, 2003.

In June, after the war had begun, Bush attended two summits on the road map, in Aqaba, Jordan, and Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, where he uttered words of commitment. He turned the project over to Rice, who never presented him with a plan to achieve it. "He said that Condi would ride herd on this process. She never even saddled up," said Leverett. Six months earlier, Rice had appointed neoconservative Elliott Abrams as her Middle East coordinator on the NSC, and he threw up obstacles to prevent the road map from going forward. Bush, for his part, never followed up on his own rhetoric and was utterly absent from the policymaking.


So Leverett decided he must quit. "When they wouldn't put the road map out in 2002 and brought in someone like Abrams, that meant they weren't going to be serious. I didn't want to stick around for a charade. I say this as someone who voted for Bush in 2000 and was genuinely committed to see him succeed."

On terrorism, Rice insists that Bush wanted a strategy rather than to be "swatting flies." But the strategy that lay on her desk unimplemented on 9/11 was virtually identical to the one NSC counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke presented to her on Jan. 25, 2001. On that fateful 9/11, Rice was to deliver a speech on the administration's priorities that stressed missile defense and not terrorism. Now, she will not release the full text of that speech. Roger Cressey, former counterterrorism analyst on the NSC at the time, said to me: "The director of Central Intelligence was briefing the president every day on the threat. How come we on the NSC didn't get additional guidance? There was no sense of urgency that came out of those briefings that we on the terrorism staff saw."

The story of the Middle East debacle, like that of the pre-9/11 terrorism fiasco, reveals the inner workings of Bush's White House: The president, aggressive and manipulated, ignorant of his own policies and their consequences, negligent; the secretary of state, prideful, a man of misplaced gratitude, constantly in retreat; the vice president as Richelieu, secretive, conniving, at the head of a neoconservative cabal, the power behind the throne; the national security advisor, seemingly open and even vulnerable, posing as the honest broker, but deceitful and derelict, an underhanded lightweight.

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

MORE FROM Sidney Blumenthal

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Middle East Terrorism

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •