Stability and democracy

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice talks about the Arab-Israeli peace process, the dangers of a nuclear Iran and the long road ahead for the Arab Spring.

Condoleezza Rice and Abbas 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Condoleezza Rice and Abbas 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In June 2002, when Condoleezza Rice was only slightly more than a year into her job as national security adviser to president George W. Bush, she listened intently to a discussion about whether the president should denounce Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. “I decided to speak up and voice my opinion... ‘Mr. President, this is what the president of the United States does. He changes the terms of the debate and heaven knows someone has got to do that in the Middle East.’” Shortly thereafter, Bush emerged into the Rose Garden and, in a decisive speech, declared that the Palestinian people should elect new leaders.
In a recently released memoir of her time in office, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, Rice, now a professor at Stanford University, has laid out the story of her experiences in the Bush administration in clear and pleasant prose.
Rice devotes six chapters to the Arab- Israeli conflict, particularly the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the 2006 war in Lebanon and Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009).
The book also details her impressions of some of the leaders she was involved with during her time in office. Of her first meeting with Ariel Sharon, she writes: “I was immediately struck by the fact that he was as wide as he was tall.”
The former secretary also remembers her first meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: “An elegant man with a shock of white hair, he seems confident and anxious all at once,” she writes.
She also relates how her convoy did careful planning when visiting Abbas in Ramallah so as to avoid having to pay respects at Arafat’s grave.
She doesn’t pull any punches in her book, describing how she “loathed” Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir and how, when given an embroidered abaya, of the style women wear in Saudi Arabia, she felt that it was a sign of oppression.
Rice’s memoir is the latest to come out of the second Bush administration; former vice president Dick Cheney released an autobiography in August and Bush released his Decision Points in 2010.
Rice’s book begins in 2001, and focuses on the day-to-day ins and outs of running the State Department, providing a fascinating insight not only into the momentous period that she lived through but also into the turmoil that much of the world underwent during that time.
Can you give a brief explanation of what led you to write this book? You’ve written two others, if I’m not mistaken?  I wrote a book about my family and a child’s version. I had always planned to do two books, one about who I was and who I am, because I thought that was important for people to understand, and then a policy memoir. Now seemed like a good time.
I tried to write a book that gives people a sense for why certain decisions were taken and how they were taken. I tried to talk about the principles that are ‘evergreen’ [constants], how the unexpected can turn policy in a different direction, the fundamental shifts that took place due to 9/11 and the financial crisis. I also wanted to give a sense of what it is like to run the State Department and also on the issues that are perennial issues. In addition I wanted to present some lessons about dealing with them. What I write about – it isn’t just about the past, but about the lessons that can be learned for the future.
Moving on to discuss Israel, which forms an important part of this book. You write warmly about opposition leader and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. She figures in the opening and closing pages of your book. Have you kept in touch with her? Was your relationship with her important to you?
Yes, it was important. We first met when she was an adviser to Ariel Sharon, when he was preparing to run for prime minister. We developed a personal relationship, one of trust. I could see in Tzipi her fierce defense of and commitment to a Jewish democratic State of Israel. She was born to it, her parents were freedom fighters in the Irgun. I could also see that she understood that Israel had difficult decisions to make in terms of a Palestinian state and fighting terror through diplomacy, as well as through strength.She is one of those people who made an impression [on me] and we continue to remain friends.
In the book, you refer to former prime minister Ehud Olmert as a “snake,” and mention that you yelled at him during one of your last discussions. I take it you had a poor opinion of him. When he says he was willing to concede so much just prior to leaving office, do you think he’s being honest?
I am not at all negative about him. I think he put forward a compelling proposal, and it would have taken some negotiation but to my mind, it is still by far the most far-reaching proposal we ever had for a two-state solution. Olmert is to be credited with that. It was a time of political turmoil and people don’t believe he could deliver, but the real mistake was in the Palestinians not deciding to at least signal their deep interest in what he proposed. We suggested depositing it with the next US administration and passing it on to Obama, but the next administration decided to go for a settlement freeze, which wouldn’t work. Because of this Abbas couldn’t be [seen to be] less Palestinian than the Americans [i.e negotiating when the Americans were asking for the freeze to be implemented first].
You write warmly about Mahmoud Abbas. Are you still as impressed with him as you were? Can you share any thoughts on his initiative to go to the UN and UNESCO to receive recognition?
I think it is a mistake for them to go to the UN. It puts them on the wrong side of this issue. The [Palestinian] state will be born of negotiations, not of a fait [accompli] of this kind. I think he [Abbas] is a reasonable partner, he has a source of legitimacy; that the West Bank is a different place than 10 years ago and a better place than Gaza and he remains the only negotiating partner. So I think the PA has made a mistake in doing this but I hope the momentum now for UN organizations recognizing PA participation will stop so that negotiations – which must be the main forum – can get under way.
Iran is an issue of immense concern here. With a new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report out, can you give us any insights? For instance, does it contradict the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that said Iran had halted its nuclear ambitions?
Yes, the Iranians are seeking a nuclear weapon and are a poster child for terror, for instance supporting it abroad. This is the single most dangerous state in international politics. But there is still some room for diplomacy here. The world needs to get serious about pulling... all the strings we can, in terms of sanctions.
The Russians and Chinese said something recently about not backing them [the Iranian regime] into a corner but it is time [to put them in a corner]. There are [additional] sanctions available, for instance on oil and gas exports and also on [Iran’s] central bank, and it is time to put them in place. The problem with military action is the unintended consequences that will strengthen the regime at home, but it is time for regime change.
Another issue of immense importance regionally is the Arab Spring. This also obviously has serious ramifications for Israel. We can see that in the attacks on the pipelines in Egyptian Sinai, the smuggling of weapons, etc. Israel has been criticized for supposedly supporting dictators at the expense of the Arab street. Do you think such criticism is fair?
I think that is a misconception about how international politics works. You have to deal with the government – that is the entity that controls access and assets. I have no quarrel with Israel for having tried to create security for its people by dealing with Egypt on rocket fire or closing tunnels [to Gaza]. You don’t have access to “the people” to negotiate those issues. I do think we recognized it was important to reach out to the people of Egypt. That is why I gave the speeches I did and helped civil society; you had to do both: deal with dictators to defend our interests and reach out to the populations. It isn’t fair to think a better deal was available [for Israel].
You write about democratic change coming “frustratingly slow[ly]” to the Arab world. Do you have any hopes for what is happening now, in light of the rise of Islamism in Egypt, Tunisia and perhaps Libya?
[That] people in the Middle East are seeking their freedom has suddenly sprung onto the radar screen, but the desire for freedom is universal. However, we should remember that the issue is that freedom and democracy [are] not the same thing. In the Arab world they have justifiably overthrown authoritarian regimes but they now have a long process of turning that into democratic institutions that will protect their rights and articulate their wishes but also their responsibilities. We see that when reform comes late, it can be chaotic.
In this context, the US administration was quick to distance itself from the former Egyptian regime. Do you see a problem with America’s treatment of our longtime ally Hosni Mubarak?
Once the Egyptian people are in the streets, determined to change the government, you have no choice. It is hard to support an authoritarian regime; we have tried over the years to encourage friendly regimes like the Mubarak regime to reform before it got to that point. There were ways to give the people a way to organize and be a counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood but the [Mubarak] regime didn’t allow that to happen, and once the people were in Tahrir Square, it was too late.
You mention the “Arabists” in the State Department and the perceived pro-Arab bent in general. Are these latest uprisings posing a problem for these experts, who must navigate between supporting US interests and supporting democracy?
Absolutely, it poses quite a challenge. I recall Bush, in the second inaugural, I said that we can no longer support a policy that for 60 years has talked about stability and tried to trade it for democracy. I remember the realists [at the State Department] rushed to the barricades and said we should defend American interests. It turns out it is the realists that didn’t realize authoritarianism is unstable. I talked about ‘American realism’; pursuing our values is our best way to stability and indeed defend our interests. There is a fair amount to answer for in assuming authoritarian regimes are stable. But we need to remember we are not an NGO. We don’t have the option of not dealing with authoritarian regimes. We have to deal with Egypt and the Saudis, and so on, but standing for the proposition that they need to reform quickly was a very wise position for the President [Bush], to be on the right side of history.
Turning Iraq into a democracy might be an example of being on the right side of history. You mentioned in an interview with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour that the ideal situation would have been to see Iraq become a pillar of democracy. I wonder, in all the discussions about Iraq over the years, has the public and media missed this issue? That America was deeply committed to creating a new pillar of our alliance system in the Middle East, a democratic and moderate one?
You are right, people did miss this. We didn’t use military force to take down Saddam to bring democracy, we went after Saddam because he was a security threat. While the intelligence on his weapon stockpiles turned out to be wrong... [the fact that] Saddam had WMD was not a theoretical issue. He had been close to a nuclear device and used gas on his own people. It was a very real proposition that this destabilizing factor who supported terror, that he was a real threat to our security. That is why we went to Iraq. But once we had overthrown him, we had to have a view towards the future, and wanted to have a democratic government. We had the belief, strategically, in an Iraq that is an ally and friend of the US and doesn’t threaten its neighbors and would shift the regional balance, so that was very much in our minds.
In light of that, do you think the Bush administration’s policy was vindicated by Barack Obama’s actions, despite his early critique of your administration’s policies?
I do think so. History has a long arc, not a short one.One has to be careful about talking about legacies. But the president’s belief that authoritarianism was not stable...the idea that people must move forward to freedom for stability, that has been vindicated. The president understood the real two-state solution had to come not only with a focus on borders, but also with democratic institutions and decent leadership. He said early on that we would not deal with Yasser Arafat, and the Europeans criticized us. Finally, I do think that the fact we talked about an Iranian threat but not [about] an arms race with Iraq is a direct result of what we did in Iraq. All of those decisions that were controversial are bearing fruit.
We may not be talking about an arms race with Iraq, but the situation in Syria is an ever-present issue in the region. US Ambassador Robert Stephen Ford recently had to leave that country because of threats to his life, based on his opposition to the regime’s crackdown. How do you view his actions in Syria in light of the fact that it was you who recalled the US ambassador after Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri’s death in a bombing attributed to Syria and Hezbollah?
I absolutely think that Ambassador Ford did the right thing. I know him personally, he is a fine foreign service officer. Going [out of the embassy and] to Homs is in the finest tradition of the US – standing with people seeking freedom. I speak in the book about withdrawing our ambassador [to Syria] in light of the evidence that Syria was complicit [in the murder of Hariri]. It was obviously better to have someone on the ground to make that stand; you see it in the way our diplomatic people have done it in Belarus and Cuba, and Ford is to be admired for what he did.
What are your plans for the future?
To be a professor at Stanford. I love being back at Stanford. I consider myself an academic who took a multiyear detour. I’ve been there for 30 years; I love teaching, I love writing and although I may miss my time in government and I am proud of my public service, I am happy to be a civilian again.