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Biographers Examine Rice’s Role in New Mideast Talks

November 29, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was a key negotiator in Tuesday's Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md. Three biographers discuss her role in U.S.-Middle East relations and her tenure as the nation's top diplomat.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a most important week in the life and career of Condoleezza Rice. Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was President Bush who presided over the Middle East talks this week, but it was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who beforehand orchestrated weeks of intense negotiations to persuade leaders in the region to join the peace process.

During Tuesday’s conference, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made a point of singling out the U.S. secretary of state for her efforts.

MAHMOUD ABBAS, President, Palestinian Authority (through translator): I must also pay tribute to the role played by Dr. Condoleezza Rice and her aides, for, without her relentless resolve and determination and her vision vis-a-vis all aspects of conflict in our region, we would not have been convening here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rice received similar compliments from Israeli Prime Minister Olmert.

Over the past year, Secretary Rice has made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority and has traveled to the region eight times. Prior to the conference, Rice repeatedly dismissed criticism that it would be a public relations move.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: We, frankly, have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo-op.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After Tuesday’s meetings, she added…

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a national interest of the United States, and we now have a real opportunity to make progress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Rice also repeated that she and President Bush have pledged the administration’s unwavering support in the drive for peace.

For more on the woman and her biggest moment yet in the international spotlight, we talk to three journalists who have written biographies on the secretary of state this year.

Marcus Mabry is the author of “Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power.” He’s an editor at the New York Times and a former correspondent for Newsweek.

Glenn Kessler is the author of the “The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy.” He’s a diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post.

And Elisabeth Bumiller is the author of “Condoleezza Rice: An American Life,” due out next month. She’s a reporter for the New York Times.

This has to be a woman with a very interesting life to have all three of you writing about her this year. We are going to focus on the Middle East peace process.

And, Elisabeth Bumiller, to you first. What was her role in making this conference happen?

ELISABETH BUMILLER, Author, “Condoleezza Rice: An American Life”: Her role was really pushing the president, her chief client here. And it was also getting the energy together.

A year ago, she looked around and realized that the time was running out. She collected a lot of documents from the State Department of previous peace efforts in the Middle East, saw what had gone wrong, met with Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister of Israel, and pushed the president in this direction, and also realized that the legacy at that moment was the war in Iraq, and she and the president needed another legacy, something more positive.

Bringing the parties together

JUDY WOODRUFF: Glenn Kessler, how did she do this? Describe some of the efforts. We mentioned seven, eight trips to the Middle East.

GLENN KESSLER, Author, "The Confidante": Right. Well, it was a lot of it -- she likes to talk about -- use football analogies, three yards and a cloud of dust. And she worked over the last 12 months, making eight trips, it was 100,000 miles back-and-forth shuttling, and it was -- and she would found that a lot of times she would get there, they'd move a little bit, and as soon as she left, everything would fall apart, and she'd have to come back another month, push them again. She'd leave; it would fall apart.

And, actually, it wasn't going very well until, ironically, Hamas seized control of Gaza. And that created, you know, kind of gave everyone the notion of the hangman's noose in the Middle East, and they felt they had to do something to try to get the parties together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcus Mabry, what qualities did she bring to this? What are some of the techniques? I mean, how much do we know about what she was doing when she brought these people together, or tried to?

MARCUS MABRY, Author, "Twice as Good": Well, we know quite a bit about it at this point. I mean, she's incredibly determined. She brings an incredible kind of laser-like focus to bear in negotiations.

You know, she really is a realist, and I think in what we're seeing here and, as Elisabeth said, this meeting wouldn't have happened without Condoleezza Rice. This would not have -- Annapolis wouldn't have come about.

So I think it's rather extraordinary. It was her determination that moved the administration, as she has been doing for her entire tenure as secretary of state, to a more moderate point of view.

I think we can't underestimate -- we can't overstate, rather, the importance of this next challenge for the next 14 months for Condoleezza Rice. In one of our interviews, she said to me -- and I think it was when actually she was kind of the most humble and the most kind of raw emotionally. She said to me the reason she decided to stay for the second term, because she had told all her friends, all her family that she was going home to Stanford, she said that to her herself. She knew was going home to Stanford.

And the president the weekend after his re-election in 2004 asked her to stay. And she told me the reason she stayed in the end was because they had thrown up all the cards in the Middle East by deposing Saddam Hussein, by also saying, at least, paying lip service to the fact that America would no longer support even allies who were authoritarian, non-democratic states.

She said that she was very aware of the need to build a different foundation for the Middle East, lest whatever takes shape after this administration leaves is a much worse Middle East.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would -- go ahead.

GLENN KESSLER: No, I was just going to say the irony is that, when she came in as secretary of state, she was very tentative, particularly on this issue, the Palestinian issue. And she in many ways...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you going back to the beginning of the Bush term?

GLENN KESSLER: No, I'm going back to when she was secretary of state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of state.

GLENN KESSLER: And in many ways, she made the situation worse by encouraging the Israelis to withdraw from Gaza, and then encouraging the Israelis to allow Hamas to participate in Palestinian legislative elections, and she was surprised when they won. I mean, this was supposed to be an example of how democracy triumphs in the Middle East. And who won, but an Islamic radical group?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did she push this, Elisabeth?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: I just think she saw it as essential to her future and essential to the future of the Bush administration. But, you know, give her some credit. I think she does want peace in the Middle East. I think people tend to forget that.

And she saw this as the right time. If you ask her, she'll say that the cards were in place. She will argue that there was a moderate Palestinian leadership with Mahmoud Abbas and that the Israelis were ready to negotiate.

And these two men, the prime minister of Israel and Abbas, can talk to each other. That's a big step forward. And she deserves credit for getting them together and putting them in a room together.

Getting Arab states on-board

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the criticism has been, as you're alluding to, that they had put the Middle East on the back burner, the administration has. The fact is this is a very tough, tough problem for any administration.

MARCUS MABRY: It is, but it is true this administration has really run away from the problem and it chose not to engage. And I think what Rice said -- and many of the things she says, one thinks, you know, can she really believe what she's saying, because it sounds so much like some kind of line out of the White House that she's just rehearsed over and over again?

At the beginning of this year, she was constantly saying that the administration had actually improved things in the Middle East already by changing the correlation of forces, by actually making the Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, interested in an Israeli and Palestinian deal, because if they didn't do it, their own existence was at stake.

Now, again, that's right out of the realist playbook. It's a correlation of forces argument. It is in everyone's interest now to pursue this in the way it was not before. And I think her greatest accomplishment so far is the buy-in of Arab states. We've never had this extent of Arab buy-in.

GLENN KESSLER: Well, we have to see how that plays out. I mean, the Arabs showed up. One of the things that is striking about the Annapolis conference is there's no real game plan that's apparent for how you're going to use the Arabs in an effective way to work with the parties.

After the Madrid conference in 1991, there were distinct working groups set up that brought the Arabs together with the Israelis and to try to work on common issues. You don't have that here, in part because Annapolis was put together so quickly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was going to say, why not? Is that part of her strategy, her tactic in all of this?

GLENN KESSLER: Well, that's unclear. At the moment, you know, the Arabs only came in at the very last minute, and it wasn't even clear if they were going to get the high-level attendance they that they did, since it was in the form of the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about President Bush? Did she have to persuade him, Elisabeth, that this was a good idea? Did he persuade her? Whose idea?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: It's sort of this symbiotic relationship. I mean, she will tell you, if you ask, "This was the president's issue as much as it was mine. He wanted this to happen. Now, we talk about the details, should we do this then or that then? But this really was the president's vision."

The reality is she prodded him on this, as she has on a number of diplomatic options in the second term, including, of course, the diplomacy with Iran, diplomacy with North Korea. And sometimes she'll talk about that, how it works. You have to go into Bush and push him, and he pushes back, and he needles her, they argue, she goes back for more information, she comes back. It's a very slow process. He's very stubborn.

"Three-fifths of a person"

JUDY WOODRUFF: We saw that she gave this very unusually personal statement at the opening, where she talked about growing up as a young black girl in the American South, and how she could identify with both the Israelis and the Palestinians. What's the significance of that? And was it effective?

MARCUS MABRY: It was incredibly effective, as it always is. This is an incredibly storied history. What is compelling about her and I think the reason we have three books about a sitting secretary of state -- and I don't know if that's ever happened before -- is because her history, the last 53 years, is the same as the history of our nation.

From integration to segregation, affirmative action, the women's rights movement, all these things are inherent to her life. Even the fall of the Soviet Union, which she played some role in diplomatically, to the rise of George Bush's hegemonic and revolutionary foreign policy, 9/11, all -- the last 50 years, her years are also our years. And so I think that's why she's such a compelling story.

GLENN KESSLER: Well, in fact, having been with her overseas, audiences overseas really respond to that story, that they find that very compelling. And one of the things that is -- a line that she uses all the time overseas is, "In the original U.S. Constitution, I was only three-fifths of a person."

And that really resonates with audiences overseas, particularly Arabs, because it's a bit of a humility about how the U.S. Constitution was not perfect. And it also suggests that a nation can change and improve. And just to see the reaction of audiences overseas when they see a very important U.S. official, a black woman, say, "I was once three-fifths of a person under my Constitution," is very dramatic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think, Marcus, you've noted that she's referred to her childhood before in her career.

MARCUS MABRY: And I think what is interesting about her relationship to this history -- and, of course, most African-Americans consider the civil rights history in Birmingham, when she was growing up there as a little girl, was the epicenter of this struggle, to be sacrosanct, to be sacred history, I think, for most African-Americans.

Rice has often used her own childhood strategically. And I think this is really where we see kind of the realist Condoleezza Rice. It's about what's in her interests and what she's trying to gain at this time.

We saw it in 2000, when she made her speech to the Republican National Convention, when she basically erased 40 years of American history and painted the Republican Party as the liberators of African-Americans and Democrats as racists.

Leaving a legacy

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elisabeth, does she believe -- two things -- does believe this can work, that it can be successful? And how important is it that it is successful to her legacy and the administration's legacy?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, I think, if it works, if a miracle occurs and there is a peace agreement before the end of Bush's term, she will be considered a very successful secretary of state. If not, she will be an interesting but minor secretary of state, I think, in the history books.

She believes it can work. But she also -- you can see they're also talking about we want this to happen at the end of the term. They're also talking about passing it on, the progress, they say they will make to the next president.

So there is some realism here, I think. But it's what they see as -- you know, Iraq is going better right now. But when this got started in December of 2006, Iraq looked extremely grim. And it was kind of a sign of how grim Iraq was at the time that she looked to the Middle East as a potential for hope.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How important do you think they see this is, Glenn?

GLENN KESSLER: Well, at least for her, it's the defining moment of the last year of her tenure as secretary of state. And, actually, I'm not sure if she really believes in her heart of hearts that they can get a deal while President Bush is still in the office.

What I think is that she wants to be viewed that she's laying the groundwork, that years from now, that if people look back, and there is eventually a Palestinian state, they'll say it started in Annapolis with Condoleezza Rice.

It was very important to her when she was a mid-level official in the first Bush administration, when the Soviet Union collapsed, that she felt she had inherited the structures, the fruits of the labors of people like George Marshall, Dean Acheson, previous secretaries of state.

And she hopes that what she started here is something that someone in the future can point back to and say, "This is thanks to Condoleezza Rice."

JUDY WOODRUFF: That means her name is tied to this, whatever happens?

MARCUS MABRY: That's absolutely right. Right now, her legacy, of course, of her, what will be eight years in Washington this go-round, is Iraq. That is her legacy.

Her role as not doing her job as national security adviser in the first term, with regards to, as Brent Scowcroft, her mentor, said, being the skeptic-in-chief about every plan that any cabinet minister brings forth. She didn't do that.

Right now, that's her greatest legacy of this time in Washington. This is the only way to erase that is to make some progress, not to get peace in the Middle East -- that's unlikely -- but to lay a foundation for a more democratic Middle East that the next administration can take and run with.

And I think she's got no choice but to move the ball, to use kind of her football analogy, down the field, at least somewhat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marcus Mabry, Glenn Kessler, Elizabeth Bumiller, three biographers, we appreciate it. Thank you very much.