First buddy

Condi Rice has rarely used her close relationship with Bush to offer dissent or hold back administration hard-liners. That doesn't bode well for her tenure at State.


Dennis Jett
November 18, 2004 12:02AM (UTC)

It was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and America was under attack. In this moment of crisis President Bush rushed aboard Air Force One and took off without giving a destination or any instructions on how to respond to the emergency. Vice President Cheney, deep in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center under the White House, was told a fourth airliner was 80 miles from Washington. Knowing that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon, Cheney must have feared that one could be headed for the White House. "In about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing," he gave the order to shoot down the plane without pausing to worry about the passengers.

There was no plane heading toward Washington, however, and even if there had been, the U.S. fighter jets in the area had no weapons onboard. The fourth hijacked airliner had already crashed in a Pennsylvania field. But Cheney did not have that information. Nor did he have the authority to order the destruction of the plane.

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Bush and Cheney, who refused to testify under oath or in public and insisted on appearing together before the 9/11 commission, asserted that the president had given his approval in a telephone conversation. The only problem is, there is no record of that conversation. The 9/11 commission's report concluded that "there is no documentary evidence for this call."

Faced with a situation in which the president exercised no authority and the vice president exceeded his, what did Condoleezza Rice do? She did what a good aide does -- covered up for them. She said she remembered the call but was unable to give any specifics.

It was not the only time she offered a version of history that improved the administration's image but did not square with the facts. Administration officials had argued the 9/11 attacks could not have been anticipated because no one could have imagined that terrorists would use planes to fly into buildings. But that was before the White House reluctantly made public the Presidential Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001. When asked at the 9/11 commission hearings what the title of that PDB was, Rice said she believed it was "Bin Laden Determined to Attack in U.S." Unflappable and undeterred, she insisted on adding that the information in the report was historical and did not warn of attacks inside the United States. (Presumably, if the date, time and place of the attack had all been specified in the report, the White House would have reacted to the threat.) Clearly, Rice is very adept at maintaining that what the White House asserts is true because the White House says it's true.

As national security advisor, Rice had to play two critical roles -- assistant to the president and bureaucratic heavyweight. In the latter she was supposed to force competing departments like State and Defense to articulate and implement the same policy. She excelled at the first role, but failed at the second.

She has a closer personal relationship with her president than any of her predecessors enjoyed with theirs. Yet she rarely used that strength to resolve the debates that divided the hard-liners in Defense and the moderates elsewhere. For instance, North Korea and Iran have both made significant progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons in the past four years. The only response from the administration has been to engage in endless internal debates about whether to negotiate with these two members of the "axis of evil" or undermine them.

The early appointments made to replace departing Cabinet members are a good indication of what Bush will do with his mandate during his second term. Personal relationships and an ability to defend the administration's position, regardless of how outrageous the argument, will continue to count for far more than integrity or professional ability. Alberto Gonzales, the White House legal counsel who justified torture and recommended that the United States ignore international law or treaty obligations, will as attorney general ensure that the term "Justice Department" continues to be a misnomer.

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Rice will do the same at State. Her relationship to the president will continue to take precedence over everything else. While it is unclear whether Colin Powell's voice of moderation ever moderated any administration policy, at least he occasionally raised it. Rice can be counted upon to give no hint of dissent, raising groupthink to the level of theological certainty.

The role of secretary of state, like that of national security advisor, has two key parts. The secretary has to manage a very large and complex bureaucracy and provide overall guidance to foreign policy. Rice is unlikely to be able to do either well. Being second in command of a large, elite academic institution like Stanford, where she was provost, is different from running a large government department in a town filled with competing bureaucratic entities. And sharing a love of football with the president is not shaping his policies in a way that makes them coherent.

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Bush is fond of pointing out that all people want to be free, and from that he deduces that once the seed of democracy is planted it will flourish. Iraq has demonstrated that destroying the existing order does not mean the political vacuum will be filled by Jeffersonian democrats. And if democracy is so easy to come by, why are only a third of the countries in the world real democracies, a third very limited ones and the remaining third dictatorships? But will Bush's sports pal tell him that, or will she simply defend his parallel universe and expect everyone else to buy in to their version of reality?

Among those who won't buy in are the vast majority of the professionals at the State Department, some of whom were among those who expressed the most serious reservations about the invasion of Iraq and the evidence used to justify it. At the CIA, the new director, Porter Goss, is cleaning house. But he is not weeding out those who had it wrong about Iraq. His mission is to eliminate those who were disloyal enough to leak the fact that they had their doubts.

Rice's chief job may be to conduct a witch hunt of her own, if only to prove she remains the first buddy.

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Dennis Jett

Dennis Jett is a 28-year veteran of the U.S. State Department who served as ambassador to Peru and Mozambique. The author of "Why Peacekeeping Fails," Jett is now the dean of the University of Florida International Center.

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