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Time: Is Condi The Problem?

Monday, Apr. 05, 2004

Is Condi The Problem?

As critics accuse the Bush Team of bungling the fight against terrorism, TIME takes an inside look at the role played by the President's National Security Adviser

By MICHAEL ELLIOTT AND MASSIMO CALABRESI

Sometimes, you just have to leave your mentor behind. In an interview with TIME in August 2001, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said her "model" for the job was Brent Scowcroft, the only person to serve in the post under two Presidents, and the man who, in 1989, had brought Rice from Stanford University to work with him in the White House of George H.W. Bush. Scowcroft was self-effacement personified. For most of his time in office, he would not have been recognized by tourists squeezing their faces between the bars of the north fence of the White House. Indeed, at a conference Rice attended in January 2001, Scowcroft argued that a National Security Adviser should be seen occasionally and heard less.

Rice could not have been listening. On the morning of March 22, hours after Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism chief in the Administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, had made his explosive charges on the war on terrorism, Rice performed a rarely seen grand slam, appearing on the breakfast shows of ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN. Interviews with Tom Brokaw of NBC News and Sean Hannity of Fox News followed; so did sit-downs with network and print correspondents as well as an op-ed piece in the Washington Post. For a woman who was once said to have been unfairly criticized"”actually, by none other than Clarke"”because "she doesn't run around telling everyone in the media what she thinks," Rice was doing more running and telling than anyone else since P. Diddy bragged about completing the New York City marathon.

Just about the only place that Rice did not appear was before the commission looking into the attacks of Sept. 11 during two days of gripping public testimony last week. Citing Executive privilege as a member of the President's staff, Rice said she could not appear under oath in a public session but would be happy to talk to the commission privately, as she already has done for four hours. Perhaps inevitably, given the manifold outlets for her ire, not everything Rice said was internally consistent. At one time she claimed that most of Clarke's ideas for combatting al-Qaeda had been tried and rejected under Clinton, while at another she insisted that the Bush team had acted on them. And Rice sometimes contradicted"”or was contradicted by"”Administration colleagues who were doing their own briefings for the media and appearing before the commission. Rice, for example, disagreed with Vice President Dick Cheney's claim that Clarke was "out of the loop" on decisions on counterterrorism.

Her showdown with Clarke got bitterly personal. On ABC News, Clarke lumped Rice together with Cheney as "mean and nasty people." But Rice gave as good as she got. Clarke's claim that he once divined from her body language that she had never heard of al-Qaeda, she told the network correspondents, was "arrogant in the extreme. I find it peculiar that Dick Clarke was sitting there reading my body language. I didn't know he was good at that too." But all the sarcasm and backbiting in Washington could not obscure a central truth: by casting doubt on the performance of the Bush team in the months before Sept. 11, Clarke had taken aim at the competence of Rice, who was not only his boss but is also the person charged with making sure that the President's foreign policy priorities are straight and that the best intelligence is landing on his desk. For the first time in more than three years, during which she has usually been the subject of coverage so flattering that it would make Donald Trump blush, the first woman ever to be National Security Adviser was on the spot.

It was inevitable that, sooner or later, Rice's performance would come under scrutiny. That would have happened with or without Clarke's book. Any fair-minded observer would admit that the Bush Administration has had its successes in foreign policy, but with continued instability in Iraq, Osama bin Laden still at large, a steady drumbeat of terrorist atrocities around the world and an extraordinary degree of popular opposition abroad to its policies, the Administration's performance is, at the very least, wobbly. If Bush is to be criticized for his Administration's foreign policy performance, then Rice will be too.

The commission looking into Sept. 11 is bound to focus, as it has, on the record of the Administration in its first few months. That will necessarily involve asking if Rice effectively staffed the National Security Council (NSC)"”which had primary responsibility for coordinating policy and action on terrorism"”whether she set the right priorities and if she had the standing to go toe-to-toe with enormously experienced figures like Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

In 2001, there was no doubting the source of Rice's power. During the election campaign, she had forged a deep personal bond with Bush, building on relationships with his family that she had established during his father's presidency. Rice used the confidence that Bush had in her to consolidate her position in Washington. The big personalities of the Administration's foreign policy team had not yet shown their muscle. Though it was well understood that Cheney would be a key figure in the new Administration, Bush did not know him as well as he knew Rice. There was speculation at the end of 2000 that Cheney would chair the Principals Committee meetings"”a key policymaking forum on foreign and security policy. Rice was given the assignment, although Cheney managed to place some associates of his, like Robert Joseph, an expert on nonproliferation, in important positions within the NSC.

Rumsfeld, no friend of Bush's father, spent much of the first half of 2001 fighting (and seemingly losing) a battle with the uniformed military to rethink their priorities. So Rice was central to Bush's team. Granted, she had only had a scant two years' experience in government, but from the time of her childhood in Birmingham, Ala., nobody ever doubted that Rice was a quick study. At the time of the transition, said a senior member of the Clinton team, "she came in and listened attentively to what the experts told her. She was very, very cordial."

But for all her cordiality, Rice was a critic of the Clinton Administration's policies and habits. She had said as much, in the kind of language that one of Oscar Wilde's more waspish characters might have used. In a famous 2000 article in Foreign Affairs, she insisted that the "Clinton Administration has assiduously avoided implementing an agenda" that "separates the important from the trivial." In an interview with the New York Times just before the election, she dismissed Clinton's affection for peacekeeping by stating that "we don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten." The Bush team, says Scowcroft, had a sense that "if the Clinton Administration did it, it was suspect," though Scowcroft says that in Washington attitudes like that are "standard procedure."

Rice, however, brought more than a distaste for the Clinton way to her new job. There was also her expertise and her President's initial agenda. Arguably, neither has turned out to be ideally suited to the world with which she and Bush have had to cope. Rice had been a distinguished scholar of the Soviet Union, which by 2001 did not exist. During the presidential campaign, she freely admitted to the New York Times that "I've been pressed to understand parts of the world that have not really been part of my scope. I'm really a Europeanist." Even Clinton officials not unsympathetic to Rice and her colleagues saw trouble brewing at the time of the transition. "The biggest thing they have to work on is adjusting their perception of the world to realities," said the official who had praised Rice's cordiality. "They've been on the outside for quite some time. They're going to discover it's not the world they thought it was."

Whatever their failings may have been, Clinton's people knew one way in which the world had changed since the early 1990s. At the January 2001 conference at which Scowcroft spoke and which Rice attended, Samuel Berger, Clinton's National Security Adviser, said that "America is in a deadly struggle with a new breed of anti-Western jihadists"”nothing less than a war." In answer to a question, Berger was blunt: "We must understand as a nation that we are engaged in a wholly new battle against an international terrorist network in dozens of countries, which is deeply committed to injuring and destroying the United States and its allies. This is one of the most serious threats the next Administration will face."

There's no reason to doubt that the incoming team appreciated the importance of terrorism. In 1999, in the introduction to the report of a Stanford conference titled The New Terror, Rice wrote that "the threat of biological and chemical weapons is real and growing," and that such threats "can come from small states and terrorists just as easily as from one powerful adversary." Speaking to TIME last week, Rice said, "We were clearly worried about weapons of mass destruction and rogue regimes." Before Sept. 11, she said, Bush had 46 sessions with CIA Director George Tenet "in which there was a piece presented to him on al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-related issues."

But two other things are equally true. First, whatever their sense of the urgency on the terrorism threat, Bush's officials"”who started their own policy review of the subject"”didn't think much of the Clinton team's approach to the problem. "There was a sense they hadn't handled it well," Cheney told TIME last week. Second, the new Administration had a lot on its plate. Some things it had heaped there itself, like a commitment to stand down the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972"”which, Cheney pointed out last week, needed to be done because "we had campaigned on a platform of missile defense." And some things had been heaped there for them. In April a U.S. reconnaissance plane was forced down in China, leading to a long standoff with Beijing.

From Rice's perspective, it must have seemed during the first months of 2001 that the world had changed less than the Clinton team had thought. Her Foreign Affairs article had stressed the importance of Washington's relations with great powers. And now she was helping manage a crisis with China while preparing for negotiations with Russia on the abm treaty. In June she accompanied Bush on a trip to Eastern and Central Europe, the very territory that had been the focus of her time in government 10 years before. She wept as the President, in Warsaw, made a commitment to a "great alliance of liberty" with Europe; in Slovenia she watched Bush look into the soul of Russian President Vladimir Putin and find it good. A month later she was in Moscow, negotiating with Putin as if it were 1991 all over again. If there were new threats in a new world, as the Clinton team had said, it surely couldn't have seemed so in the summer of 2001.

Sept. 11 proved that officials in the Clinton Administration had been right; the calculations and practices forged during the cold war were inadequate to new conditions. Rice told TIME that for her the attacks that day meant that the idea of the nation being at war was no longer just a figure of speech. "For both the eight years of the Clinton Administration and for the first eight months of ours," she said, "we were not on a war footing. War really came to us in a different way on Sept. 11."

Rice had no direct experience in dealing with Islamic nations or terrorism. That in itself was no bar to her continuing to perform the three tasks that she sees as central to her job"”acting as an adviser and confidant to the President, performing as his staff officer on national-security matters and coordinating the government machinery so all voices are heard. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, Rice chaired numerous Principals Committee meetings, on everything from force protection to diplomacy with Central Asian countries, to keep Bush's agenda moving forward.

But the attacks on Washington and New York City did more than just shift the focus of policy away from great-power relations. The crisis reminded the world that"”quite apart from the President"”there were plenty of people among his top advisers with far more experience than Rice and with very firm agendas of their own. As the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban morphed into plans for an attack on Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, it became clear that the Bush team was deeply split.

By 2003 there were at least four different streams of thought among Administration officials. Some people, epitomized by Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz, wanted to use U.S. power to sort out the arc of crisis in the Muslim world. There were those"”Rumsfeld, usually supported by Cheney"”whose purpose was less to change the world than to defend America's interests in it and who were willing to use force unilaterally and pre-emptively snuff out what they considered potential threats. The State Department, for its part, continued to press for multilateral solutions to crises and wanted to explore nonmilitary policy prescriptions as much as the use of force. And then there were sub-Cabinet officials like Clarke (who was not alone) for whom the war on Iraq was a mistaken diversion from the fight against al-Qaeda and other jihadists.

Top Administration officials gloss over these splits by saying they have all known one another a long time, that arguments sharpen policy and that they all just serve the President. But some observers believe the turmoil has meant that Rice has been unable to assert the traditional role of National Security Adviser. After September 2002, for example, she set up four interagency task forces, chaired by her staff members, to examine various aspects of Iraq policy. The process never got much traction. Both Defense and State had their planning operations on Iraq (looking at very different things in very different ways), and according to a participant, Pentagon officials regularly skipped meetings of Rice's group that was planning for a postwar Iraq.

Rumsfeld, for one, has not always treated Rice with due deference. At a planning meeting on the war in Iraq and its aftermath, an organization chart was passed around at the top of which were the initials NSA. "What's NSA?" asked Rumsfeld. "That would be me," replied Rice. A senior Republican statesman outside the Administration thinks Defense has undermined the proper functioning of the machinery of government. Rumsfeld, says this source, is "a master of bureaucratic manipulation. He just frustrates the system until he gets his way." Cheney, defending Rice's handling of the Administration's heavyweights, insists that "she's tough and decisive when she needs to be tough and decisive."

In the past few months there have been signs that the NSC has become more central to at least one crucial area of policy. Since last fall, the council has had responsibilities for coordination between Washington and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq"”in effect supplanting the Pentagon. Rice speaks at 6:30 every morning to Paul (Jerry) Bremer, the U.S. proconsul in Baghdad, and"”augmented by experienced operators like Robert Blackwill, her top staff member on Iraq"”has taken the lead in working through tough issues like the Iraqi constitution draft.

It follows that as the U.S. prepares to hand power over to the Iraqis in June, even as attacks on American forces and their Iraqi supporters continue, Rice can expect to remain in the hot seat. The commission examining Sept. 11 will continue to do its work, nosing around the decisions and nondecisions of the bureaucracy before that awful Tuesday. Clarke's belief that the Administration needlessly compromised its ability to fight terrorism by invading Iraq may begin to resonate with the public. Rice's reputation, so stellar three years ago, now depends on whether, by November, voters think the terrorists are in retreat and Iraq has been stabilized. If both things happen, Rice will be back on the air, this time leading not an attack but a parade.

With reporting by John F. Dickerson/Washington


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