Will Condi be the Republican VP pick? Since last Thursday, when Matt Drudge floated the possibility that Condoleezza Rice could be joining Mitt Romney’s presidential ticket, that question is just about all political observers have been asking about his campaign.
Some columnists are insistent that rumors about Romney selecting the former secretary of state as his No. 2 are little but a cynical head fake meant to boost a candidate that, earlier in the week, was booed at the NAACP. Even Rice has tried to quell the rumors, explaining: “There is no way I will do this because it’s really not me. I know my strengths and weaknesses.” Skeptics point to the fact that Rice has never run for elected office, has no obvious geographical constituency, and falls into the pro-choice camp.
But for those who are taking the possibility seriously, Rice has some obvious selling points. There’s her name recognition, high-profile government experience, gender, and race, for starters. She’d significantly enliven a ticket topped by a boring white guy whose main virtue, as even GOP supporters admit, is competence. But perhaps most important, supporters point to her expertise in international affairs. As former Reagan speechwriter and WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan wrote, she is a “foreign-policy professional acquainted with everyone who’s reigned or been rising the past 20 years.”
Foreign policy is exactly why several prominent Republican policymakers couldn’t be colder to the idea. From their perspective, Rice’s biggest drawback is precisely what others believe is her greatest strength.
They argue that despite Rice’s prominent posts as George W. Bush’s secretary of state and national security adviser, her actual record is paltry. There are no major, or even minor, foreign-policy achievements to her name, and the three issues that she threw her weight behind—the Arab-Israeli peace process, engagement with Iran, and with North Korea—are all manifest failures. Rice seems to have distinguished herself largely by distancing herself from her president’s key foreign-policy initiative: Iraq.
The prospect that, as vice president to a foreign-policy novice like Romney, Rice could play a role as influential as Dick Cheney did with Bush has unnerved a key segment of the GOP foreign-policy establishment. A number of one-time Republican policymakers, all of whom requested to speak off the record for this story, had a clear consensus on Rice: She is an extremely attractive personality, smart, charming, witty, and in control of any room she enters. Despite all that, she was seriously out of her depth when it came to managing the foreign-policy portfolio of the United States at a particularly volatile moment in American history.
An academic who was at one time the provost at Stanford University, Rice first worked in government during the George H.W. Bush Administration. It was there, as a senior adviser on the National Security Council staff on Russian and Eastern European affairs under National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, that Rice first drew the ire of some influential Republicans. Part of the Bush foreign-policy team, like Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, took its cue from President Reagan’s concept of rolling back the Soviet Union and argued that U.S. policy should work toward its final downfall. Rice, on the other hand, shared the opinion of Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker, who counseled caution and sought stability by propping up Mikhail Gorbachev and thereby preserving the USSR.
Under Bush 43, Rice once again found herself often in opposition to Cheney. She was national security adviser from 2000 to 2004, and it was her job to mediate between Cheney and other foreign-policy veterans, like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, and present options to the president. “She had titans fighting each other,” says one former administration official. “Sure, she didn’t do a fantastic job of teeing up options, and she was not the best analyst to go to the president to say, ‘here are costs and benefits of each.’ But she wasn’t the worst either.” Another former administration adviser was less forgiving: “Crisp options didn’t get to the president. Arguments just went on and on, and even after the president did make a decision, she allowed the policy to be undermined.”
But it was when President Bush named Rice to replace Powell as the country’s number one diplomat that the problems started in earnest. “There was no daylight between the president and Rice when she was national security adviser,” a former senior White House aide told me. “But once she became secretary, she began to take the State Department line on a number of issues.”
Most significant, said a former senior State Department official, “Rice didn’t want to be the secretary of state of Iraq.” And so Rice came up with the foreign-policy initiatives in the 2005-2006 period that would keep her busy for the rest of Bush’s second term. One was engaging North Korea, and another was getting Iran to the table, too. The plan was to get the two rogue states to make deals on their nuclear weapons programs. The third was a negotiated settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis.
A breakthrough in any of these policies would have ensured her legacy—and won her the plaudits from the press that her critics say she so desperately craved—but there was a cost to Rice’s failures. “She spent three years undoing policy meant to hurt these dangerous regimes,” said the former administration official. “There is a cost for the three years we lost with the six-party talks with North Korea. There is a cost to taking Pyongyang off the state sponsor of terror list.” According to this official, Rice was most fixated on proving “that she wasn’t really one of those hard-ass Republicans who only wants to make war and make nuclear weapons. She thought that even if her ‘transformative diplomacy’ failed, she had tried.”
Of course it’s the president’s job to direct his secretary of state, and Bush was apparently willing to go along with Rice—up to a point. Bush resisted Rice’s efforts to push for a Palestinian-Israeli peace process, even after she went pleading to him for one. “She wanted her Madrid conference,” said the former State Department official, referring to James Baker’s 1991 Middle East peace conference. “Instead the president sent her out on a fact-finding mission to take the pulse of the region. Her argument was that we had to give the Arabs a peace conference to get them on board to take on Iran. It’s not what the Arabs said—but it’s what she wanted to hear. So, that’s what she heard.”
The Obama Administration is rightly criticized for mishandling the U.S. relationship with Israel, but Rice’s management of that alliance was almost as awkward, especially after Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah. For their part, the Israelis, in particular then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, according to the former senior administration adviser, “thought she was awful. She jammed them up to accept a ceasefire well before their military operations were completed. When they heard her comparing the Palestinians to African Americans fighting for their civil rights in the south in the ‘60s, they were furious.” Oddly, as the official notes, Rice had also said the same about Iraqi Sunnis fighting the Shia. “For some reason, the superficial civil rights analogy seemed to move the president.”
Rice’s major initiatives—the peace process and outreach to rogue states—were emulated by the Obama White House and have now been proven to be failures the last eight years (four of which were under Bush). That the Romney people have been floating Rice’s name, in earnest or simply to shake things up, is evidence not only of the campaign’s lack of foreign-policy wisdom but also its lack of vision. Romney’s success depends on him offering a real alternative to Obama, on the domestic front as well as the international one. Condoleezza Rice is not the answer.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).