Reviewed by Louis V. Riggio
The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy. By Glenn Kessler (St. Martin’s Press, First Edition, Sept. 2007, 288 pages, $25.95)
Perhaps most of American Diplomacy’s readers will be familiar with author Glenn Kessler. A senior staff writer and diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, his work is characterized by sound investigative reporting and great attention to detail. Regarding the George W. Bush White House, depending upon one’s point-of-view, he may be characterized as anywhere from highly critical to well balanced.
The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy (hereafter The Confidante) is no exception. Just about everything is in it, supported by copious notes and an index. I found myself referring frequently to the former as I went through this fascinating read. The liner notes, too, are very worthwhile.
Throughout, the close, even family-like, relationship between Dr. Rice and President Bush appears to be the key to understanding the White House’s foreign policy. The author asserts that even Vice President Cheney has been moved out of the foreign affairs loop since Dr. Rice became Secretary of State.
Stepping back a bit, although I’m a former Foreign Service Officer, I should disclose the following:
(a) I’ve met and seen but two Secretaries of State, Dean Rusk and George Schultz;
(b) I’ve visited the National Security Council (NSC) only once, a month or two before September 11, 2001, and didn’t see Dr. Rice;
(c) I haven’t read any of the other Condoleezza Rice books, not even Dick Morris’ Condi vs. Hillary.
Having disposed of the above three items, let’s get to the book.
Mr. Kessler covers Dr. Rice from her childhood in the segregated South to relatively recently. One wishes he would have been patient enough to wait for the current Blackwater brouhaha but, of course, that was unpredictable. Nevertheless, I would hope he includes coverage in editions sure to follow.
The depiction of Dr. Rice is one of driven individual intellectualism that has its ups and downs. Essentially, she began as an exponent of realpolitik that continued through her direction of the NSC. However, upon becoming Secretary of State, she switched to becoming a proponent of the more messianic view of the world characteristic of President George W. Bush. With relation to her move to State, the author states the following, rather early as it were, on page 3:
But her options and opportunities as Secretary of State are limited by one deeply ironic fact: She was one of the weakest national security advisors in U.S. history.
Mr. Kessler goes on to blame her, at least partially (you be the judge), for policy failures such as the invasion of Iraq, North Korea’s nuclear breakout, missed opportunities to engage with Iran, and on and on. Even though personally I thought her testimony before the 9/11 Commission was weak, this is quite a load, particularly so early as page 3! Curiously, the possibility that the NSC may have slipped up on Bin Laden and the 9/11 attack is left out. 9/11 Commission criticism of her appears later in the book.
Well, nobody’s perfect, certainly not this writer, but I believe it would have been useful to mention that the 2000 election legal dispute delayed the White House’s organization. Senior staff members still were being brought in when I was there just before 9/11. This couldn’t have helped Dr. Rice.
As the reader might imagine, there’s fascinating coverage, almost day-to-day, of Dr. Rice’s interaction with the Middle East disputes, the North Korea drama (now wrapped up, one hopes), the India nuclear deal, and the numerous face-to-face meetings and exchanges with leading figures from a plethora of countries. Even though she appears to have adopted the Bush messianic approach since becoming Secretary, she has returned to realpolitik in terms of the Middle East, that is, dropping her insistence that terror war allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt adopt liberal democracy. The role of the Hamas electoral victory in the Palestinian territories is discussed.
In terms of Dr. Rice’s management of the State Department, Mr. Kessler charts the angst felt by Foggy Bottom regulars as she took over, including the perception that she and a group of close aides made and announced decisions without regard for them. Throughout the book, it is clear that her extraordinarily close and personal relationship with President Bush allows her to do this, a ratification of what appear to be her own inclinations. Not surprisingly, her performance at State is contrasted with that of the more popular Colin Powell.
Other matters of great concern to Foreign Service Officers are treated, including the difficulty of starting the Iraq Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT’s). The author includes many quotations that enrich the book immeasurably, for example, as reporters are stuffed into a Rhino in Baghdad, a soldier states,
This is a slippery road and the Rhino can tip over. If it tips over, climb through the exit in the roof. But if you’re being shot at, don’t leave. If a mortar or an IED hits the Rhino and it catches fire, you should leave, unless you are getting shot at. If you are on fire and getting shot at, don’t leave. And if you feel the urge to stand up, don’t. Have a good trip.
The book is filled with many worthwhile moments. The description of the Green Zone is humorous and/or sobering. I won’t go into detail; enjoy!
What would I have liked to see that’s not in the text? Well, I mentioned the Blackwater matter but, particularly, I was surprised that although Dr. Rice’s prelude to the India nuclear deal was discussed, the Bush trip to India in 2006 was left out. Because I was in that country at that time, I’m sure there would have been interesting stories to tell. They’ll have to await the second edition of The Confidante. Finally, it’s not clear to me that a “Bush Legacy” really has been created. Nevertheless, it’s coming.
On Dr. Rice and her role in American government and history, there’s going to be a lot more to tell and I hope Glenn Kessler does it. Condi vs. Hillary? Given Dr. Rice’s drive and capability set forth clearly in The Confidante, perhaps I’ll have a look at Dick Morris’ book after all.
A graduate of Yale University with post-graduate degrees from Columbia, Lou Riggio served in the U.S. Marines prior to joining the Foreign Service in 1963. He may be best known for having been the first American officer of Japan’s Nomura Securities’ U.S. operations, 1970-82, where he rose to Senior Vice President for International Finance. Serving in many capacities there, he was the principal negotiator for Latin American government bonds issued in Japan. Lou was the first Foreign Commercial Service Officer in Brazil (São Paulo), 1982-84. Currently, he is a professional linguist in Portuguese working on many State Department programs. He has had numerous articles published on international affairs on the NewsMax.com site.