Reigning in Foggy Bottom
By: Ben Johnson
Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Condoleeza Rice will help the president fight terrorists instead of the State Department.

This week, George W. Bush put an end to civil war in one of the world’s most important locales: his Cabinet. With the nomination of Condoleeza Rice to succeed Colin Powell – an heroic man and a patriot – as secretary of state, the president acted to replace internal gridlock with a smoother implementation of his anti-terrorism policies.

This shakeup will have one vitally important effect on foreign relations, according to columnist David Gergen: “When Rice travels as secretary of state to other capitals, everyone will know that what she says represents with great fidelity what the president thinks.”


“This is what Powell could never do,” agreed an anonymous source in the New York Times. “The world may have liked dealing with Colin – we all did – but it was never clear that he was speaking for the president. He knew it, and they knew it.”


Ambiguity in wartime is perilous. After all, “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”


Powell’s limbo resulted from his often visceral disagreements with many of his fellow appointees. The Boston Globe writes, “Powell spent the last four years locked in interagency battles with the Defense Department, the Vice President's office, and the National Security Council.” Although he acted as the president’s top diplomat, Secretary Powell maintained a remarkably light itinerary, reportedly because he felt it necessary to fight the neocons at home.


Powell made it increasingly clear that, if he did not speak for the Bush administration, neither did the administration speak for him. Long at odds with Dick Cheney’s hawkish advisors, he had lately begun to take his behind-the-scenes squabbles public. According to Bob Woodward, Powell labeled the Pentagon’s hawks the “Gestapo office.” More recently, Powell Chief-of-Staff Larry Wilkerson told reporters, “I don’t care whether utopians are Vladimir Lenin on a sealed train to Moscow or Paul Wolfowitz.”


The New Republic’s Lawrence Kaplan summed it up: Powell “viewed himself as Foggy Bottom's ambassador to the White House rather than the other way around.” With Rice in the State Department, questions about the secretary’s capabilities (and loyalties) come to an end, a necessary prerequisite to execute a vigorous War on Terror.


Condoleeza Rice is uniquely qualified to become Secretary of State. Although lacking Colin Powell’s popularity and good PR, Rice’s steady, clear-headed foreign policy advice helped the Bush administration chart a new course through the darkest days of recent history. In the wake of 9/11, her NSC helped draw up the doctrine of pre-emption. When the reconstruction of Iraq seemed to bog down, Bush turned it over to her watch. Mediating the deep ideological rifts within the Cabinet, Rice has forged a genuinely respectful relationship with Powell – and his opponents.


For her efforts, Condi Rice has been branded a “house slave” by Stalinist Harry Belafonte, attacked by the Clinton-allied Center for American Progress, and even been depicted in pornographic “art” at Lehigh University. National defense faker Richard Clarke, in his discredited memoirs, claimed when he mentioned al-Qaeda, she acted as though she “had never heard the term.” She has her supporters, too. Some suggested her as a replacement for Dick Cheney in 2004 (thankfully unheeded) and a possible presidential contender in 2008 (we’ll have to see).


Rice’s biography is captivating in itself. The preacher’s daughter, who turned 50 on Sunday, grew up in Alabama, where her parents ate at segregated lunch counters. One of her schoolmates was killed in the Ku Klux Klan's 1963 bombing of Baptist church in Birmingham. The determined protégé studied classical music at the University of Denver (although she gave it up when she realized she may one day have “to teach 13-year-old kids to murder Beethoven”). She was recruited to study international relations by a former Czechoslovakian diplomat who emigrated to the United States: Josef Korbel, the father of Madeleine Albright. (Clinton officials Dennis Ross and Strobe Talbott would later seek her services, without success.) After graduating college at the age of 19, she earned her Ph.D. and became a Sovietologist. She began teaching at Stanford University, where she kept a frenetic schedule. Rice then worked a year in President Reagan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff office. Soon, Brent Scowcroft asked her to join George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council. There she saw the Berlin Wall tumble and draft administration policy for the liberated Eastern bloc.


Although she took flack for campaigning on behalf of George W. Bush this year, stump speaking is nothing new to her. It is forgotten she addressed the opening night of the 1992 Republication National Convention immediately before Pat Buchanan gave his infamous “culture war” speech. (As Ben Wattenberg quipped: The White House scheduled a black female internationalist to speak before Pat Buchanan. “Could someone be trying to send a message?”)


After the first Bush’s defeat, the 38-year-old Rice accepted the post of provost at Stanford. Eyeing the Clinton administration’s uncritical support for Boris Yeltsin’s crony capitalism with increased trepidation, she began to speak out. Soon she began advising the governor of Texas, for whom her old friends had high aspirations. From that moment, she became George W. Bush’s foreign policy tutor and closest advisor, spending more time in the Oval Office than nearly any other official.


Some criticize the president for appointing so close an advisor to this sensitive position. Lawrence Eagleburger, who served a few months as secretary of state to the elder President Bush, told Paula Zahn Monday night, “I do not believe that you should have in the secretary of state someone who has spent their last four years in the White House next to the president.” Yet Bush-41’s other Secretary of State, James Baker, had been Bush’s closest advisor – and it was Baker, not Eagleburger, who put together the masterful alliance of the first Gulf War.


Others have derided Rice's managerial style and labeled her as an “extremist.” (Sadly, the usually level-headed governor of New Mexico, Bill Richards, falls into this category.) Yet James Mann, in his unflattering book Rise of the Vulcans, claims that in the George H.W. Bush administration Rice proved adept at listening to both sides – at times convincing both factions she shared their views.


Her outlook is actually more balanced than Powell, having begun her career as a devotee of the realist school of foreign policy before seeing the Warsaw Pact’s thirst for democracy. Her new philosophy was strengthened after 9/11.


The marriage of realpolitik and humanitarianism is nicely synthesized in Rice’s pronouncements. She states our first priority is defending the homeland. She has written, “Foreign policy is ultimately about security – about defending our people, our society and our values, such as freedom, tolerance, openness and diversity.”


However, she also understands the best way to secure American freedom in the long-run is to promote liberty around the world. Six months after the terrorists attacks, Rice told students at Johns Hopkins University that it is America’s historic mission “to create a new balance of power that favors freedom.” She believes:


The desire for freedom transcends race, religion and culture…The people of the Middle East are not exempt from this desire.  We have an opportunity – and an obligation – to help them turn desire into reality.  That is the security challenge – and moral mission – of our time.


The president shares her view, and together they will try to bend the iron bars of fanaticism with the gentle wind of freedom.


She will have her work cut out for her bending the iron will of the State Department's 47,000 employees. Newt Gingrich referred to Powell’s State Department as “a broken instrument of diplomacy.” Foggy Bottom’s foot-dragging desk workers have been able to end-run the will of numerous presidents – a problem rampant throughout the civil service bureaucracy. Rice may bring in NSC loyalists in place of these entrenched intransigents. Or she may do an end-run around them herself, relying instead upon the advice of her own kitchen cabinet. Either way, it is past time the department underwent a top-down cleaning to make it accountable to the president.


We know Condoleeza Rice will do precisely that, applaud the president for his wisdom in selecting her for the job, and wish her much luck and patience in her Sisyphusian effort. The Cabinet – and the world – will be better off for it.

Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of FrontPage Magazine and co-author, with David Horowitz, of the book Party of Defeat. He is also the author of the books Teresa Heinz Kerry's Radical Gifts (2009) and 57 Varieties of Radical Causes: Teresa Heinz Kerry's Charitable Giving (2004).