Condoleezza Rice is a personal hero. She is a strong Republican woman, for whom I hold the highest esteem. As I watched Dr. Rice do the TV news and talk show circuit promoting No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, she told the interviewers that she wrote about one hundred pages for each of her eight years spent in Washington, yet she didn’t think she had written enough. Thus at close to eight hundred pages (766 in fact) Rice’s memoir is quite literally a heavy read. There is a lot of text on each page, and while I wouldn’t call her memoir boring, it was while highly interesting and extremely detailed nonetheless a slow read. I could only manage to get through twenty pages an hour. For an intimate account of the foreign policy issues during the George W. Bush administration, there is likely no better source than No Higher Honor.
Rice conveys how carefully she had to tread with diplomatic language and how much can hinge on including or excluding a single word from a negotiated agreement. She had to look over all speeches and international statements and go over them word by word, carefully looking for any nuance and expectation, as well as any subtle offence, that might have been missed by the writers and negotiators. Rice comments on today’s media and its expectations:
“One problem in managing a crisis in today’s media environment is that you are forced to say something each day. If you are not careful, your rhetoric escalates little by little and you create demands that must then be met by the other side. Since the other side is doing the same thing, it’s easy to have the crisis spin out of control pretty quickly.”
Rice was National Security Advisor at the time of the attacks on 11 September 2001. Her account of that day gave me chills, for the Secret Service believed Rice and her superiors to be the next targets. While Rice was in the President’s inner circle discussing the horrors of the airplane crashes they had just heard about, they were all still in harm’s way if an airplane hit the White House next. No one wanted to leave the TV or to leave phones unanswered, so the Secret Service had to yell:
“‘Dr. Rice, you must go to the bunker. Now! Planes are hitting buildings all over Washington. The White House has got to be next.’ I turned to head toward the bunker, and there was suddenly a report (a false one) that there had been a car bomb at the State Department.”
In the mayhem of confusion as the United States was under attack, even the Secret Service could be mistaken in believing that Washington was being attacked all over by suicidal highjackers. While Rice delayed going to the bunker to call some relatives and then President George W. Bush himself, the Secret Service could not wait any longer, and:
“He [President Bush] didn’t answer, and the Secret Service lifted me physically and pushed me toward the bunker.”
Imagine what the White House must have been like that morning. It must have been the scariest time of her life.
While Bush was hosting a visit by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at his ranch in Texas in the spring of 2002, the Saudi leader threatened to leave if the President didn’t do something to stop Israel from laying waste to the West Bank and Gaza:
“The President asked rhetorically, ‘Does it matter if they leave?’
‘It would be a disaster,’ I said. Colin [Powell] nodded his agreement and was immediately told by the President to ‘go and fix it.’ He couldn’t. The President, temporizing a bit, asked the Saudi leader to go for a tour of the ranch and talk about religion. As President Bush has written in his memoir, the atmosphere improved while they were riding together in his pickup truck. He and the Saudi encountered a wild turkey that Abdullah took as a sign from God and a bond of friendship between the two men. When the President related the incident that evening at dinner, I thought Whatever works.”
Rice used italics like this to show her innermost thoughts. These thoughts were often humorous as they revealed her feelings of frustration since they could never be spoken either as National Security Advisor or later as Secretary of State. In her second tenure as the nation’s “S”, Rice had far more occasions to dive deep into her unspoken voice and vent internally. While nations were bickering in myriad voices around her, Rice could often find sanity in her inner voice. In her final discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the proposed two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, her frustration bubbled past the boiling point:
“You snake! I fumed. I called him and yelled at him about it and I told the President I would never trust Olmert again. It doesn’t matter, I told myself. We’re done.”
No Higher Honor spends excruciating detail in Rice’s role negotiating the two-state solution. It seems that Rice recounted every flight she made to the Middle East, and every paragraph of every agreement as well. For those who are not interested in American foreign policy, these chapters will bore you, as they progress at a snail’s pace. However, in foreign policy issues of this magnitude, even that speed might be going too fast.
She provides just as much detail in outlining her decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, and in relaying her numerous trips to the regions. Rice presents the lead-up to the Iraq war and justifies the American presence there, including the 2007 surge. I found the war chapters far more interesting than those on Middle East diplomacy. The reader can see through her eyes as she realizes there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and how the wars in both countries devolved into tribal chaos.
There is a short chapter on her one meeting with Muammar Gaddafi. She thought of him as “unstable”, and related an account, with her inner thoughts in italics:
“After several hours, we were summoned to the residence, where I greeted the Libyan leader and sat down to hundreds of camera flashes. Qaddafi said a few completely appropriate words, as did I, and the press left. We began the conversation as Amado had suggested, talking about Africa in general and Sudan in particular. Libya, he promised, would help with alternative routes for humanitarian supplies to the refugees. This is going pretty well, I thought. He doesn’t seem crazy. Then, as Amado had predicted, he suddenly stopped speaking and began rolling his head back and forth. ‘Tell President Bush to stop talking about a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine!’ he barked. ‘It should be one state! Israeltine!’ Perhaps he didn’t like what I said next. In a sudden fit, he fired two translators in the room. Okay, I thought, this is Qaddafi.”
Rice makes a good point for disarming those states that have WMD, Libya in particular:
“I remember that I came away from the visit realizing how much Qaddafi lives inside his own head, in a kind of alternate reality. As I watched events unfold in the spring and summer of 2011, I wondered if he even understood fully what was going on around him. And I was very, very glad that we had disarmed him of his most dangerous weapons of mass destruction. There in his bunker, making his last stand, I have no doubt he would have used them.”
No Higher Honor is an exhaustive record of Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s eight years in Washington as National Security Advisor and then as Secretary of State. It is primarily a document that recounts the evolution of American Middle East foreign policy and the (d)evolution of two of its most recent wars. Iran and North Korea also form another major part as the US tries to deal with these two Axis of Evil states and their threatening nuclear ambitions. Throughout the tumultuous eight years of the Bush administration the United States was guided by the advice given by a true American scholar and patriot, Dr. Condoleezza Rice.