No matter how much or how little diplomatic headway was made during Thursday's brief encounter between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, their brief encounter was nevertheless quite meaningful. Those 30 minutes reversed not only the supposedly ironclad Bush administration policy toward the Syrian regime but Rice's stated aversion to any contact with the enemies of democracy in the Middle East.
Only a few weeks ago, after all, her State Department spokesman had publicly reprimanded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, which was not "appropriate ... right now." And only a few months ago, Rice herself had dismissed the idea that the United States should persuade the Syrians and Iranians to help stabilize Iraq, as suggested by the Iraq Study Group.
"I have to believe that if the assumption is that Iran does not want an unstable Iraq for whatever reason, or that Syria does not want an unstable Iraq, that they will act on that because it's in their interests to do so," she huffed last December after the release of the ISG report. As a faithful hard-liner, Rice has often said that there can be no fruitful discussion with either of those enemy states unless and until they change their evil ways.
With respect to Syria, at least, the principles that have guided Rice until this week are now defunct. But don't expect any acknowledgment from the secretary of state even of such an obvious reversal of policy. For as journalist Marcus Mabry explains repeatedly in "Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power," her relentless drive permits no questioning of her own judgments and motives. Like her beloved Dubya, she simply never looks back. That excess of attitude, says her latest biographer, has done more for her than for her country.
All in all this is a negative assessment, and presumably not what Mabry had in mind when he signed up to tell the story of Rice's life two years ago. Yet he seems to have set out as a sympathetic biographer, determined to find complexity and charm in his subject, and there is no doubt that he still admires her intelligence and grit. Indeed, it is easy to see why she cooperated with him and told others to do so.
Rice would have had every reason to consider Mabry an ideal biographer. He is a distinguished reporter and editor who currently serves as chief of correspondents at Newsweek, a graduate of Stanford University and a former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He also happens to be a "poor kid from Newark," N.J., as he puts it, an African-American man who could surely identify with Rice's inspiring rise from her childhood in racist Alabama to worldwide influence and celebrity. No wonder her female relatives judged him to be "a nice young man" and confided in him as they would never have done with a white author.
As far as Rice is concerned, there is just one problem with Mabry. He is not only sophisticated and sympathetic but fair-minded and highly scrupulous about the truth. Unfortunately, truthfulness and fairness are not flattering to his subject.
Mabry set out to find the real Condi, to get behind her public façade and reveal her personality -- and he succeeds, thanks to candid interviews with her friends and relatives as well as present and past associates. Not many readers will be surprised to learn of her strong connections with church and family, her obsession with pro football and her musical talent. At the age of 53 she he has known her share of tragedies and troubles, although those shadows have scarcely ever shaken her steely poise.
"She's not perfect, though her parents told her she was [while] growing up," writes Mabry. "They willed to her a supreme self-confidence, which has led to her historic rise, but also an overconfidence that allows her to make mistakes."
The arrogant perfectionist is inevitably beset by contradictions and liabilities. With the possible exception of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, she is probably the nation's single most prominent beneficiary of affirmative action, but remains haughtily aloof from the black community and strikingly devoid of empathy for minorities who have not emulated her success. Those feelings were reflected in her decision to join the Republican Party during the Reagan era, supporting a conservatism undergirded by whites' resentment and dedicated to abolishing the reforms that had made her career possible. It is hard to like a striver who wants to pull up the ladder behind her.
It is also difficult to admire an opportunist whose only firm belief is in her own advancement, which is essentially how Mabry describes Rice. According to his research, every boss or mentor throughout her career has been certain that Condi agreed with him, despite the broad range of politics and ideologies that they represent. This remarkable conformity amazed Mabry, who also learned that many of those same bosses and mentors today wonder whether her professed views were ever sincere or always merely convenient. Without much hesitation, he suggests that Rice actually lacks any philosophical depth or commitment -- and that her personal ambitions have always shaped her worldview.
Certainly that malleability has helped Rice to thrive in the malignant environment of the Bush administration, where she had to maneuver amid the likes of Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. Her close relationship with the president, whom she uncritically adores, has enhanced her power and prestige -- largely because she "enables" him, as Mabry puts it, without challenging his assumptions or puncturing his illusions. One close friend of Rice's, echoing many others, told the author: "She thought he could do no wrong." So she never questioned the false intelligence that led to the Iraq invasion, spreading lies far and wide; she never argued for more troops or more planning because that wasn't what Bush wanted.
Years later, Rice can scarcely bring herself to talk about what went wrong. Last year in one of three interviews she granted Mabry, she said, "War is war. We made a lot of mistakes, I'm sure of it. But there are a lot of mistakes we didn't make, too." A rather inadequate summary of a strategic blunder that many military and diplomatic experts consider the worst of modern times. For that reason, more than a few consider Rice to have been the worst national security advisor since the creation of that post during the Cold War.
If Mabry is not quite so harsh, his ultimate judgment on her is quietly devastating. Proud of her "firsts" as a black woman, he doesn't flinch from an honest assessment of her record. The world is no safer today than it was on Sept. 11, and the war "has sapped the nation's will and resources, and ... exposed the limits of American might. From a realist perspective, then, while Rice has succeeded in increasing her own personal power, she failed to enhance America's [power] internationally."
Her responsibility for that monumental failure does not, however, necessarily mean that her political career will end with the conclusion of this cursed regime. What she lacks in vision and competence she more than compensates for with her "ability to convince herself of reality as she [chooses] to see it" and her unflappable determination to convince others.
Above all, writes Mabry, "Rice had been a master rhetorician. She could spin just about anything. She was always good for a sharp quote." Combined with her racial and gender firstness, that inexhaustible capacity for spinning is exactly what one of the Republican presidential candidates will need most. Despite everything, she may yet continue to fail upward.