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Rice on Bush Years: ‘We Were Under a lot of Stress and Strain’

November 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a new memoir, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice details her experiences during turbulent times around the world while serving in the George W. Bush administration. Gwen Ifill and Rice discuss "No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington."
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, turbulent times around the world in the years of George W. Bush.

Yesterday in New York, Gwen Ifill sat down with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss her new memoir.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Rice, thank you for joining us.

FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Pleasure to be with you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: So, you’re the last in the series of Bush administration Cabinet secretaries, aides, advisers out with a memoir of the Bush years. And in some of them, you weren’t treated very nicely, especially in the Cheney and Rumsfeld biographies.

What did you think about that?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: People had strong views and strong disagreements. I always thought they were substantive, not personal.

I have a lot of respect for Vice President Cheney. We didn’t agree a lot of the time. And Don Rumsfeld’s been a good friend for a long time. And, you know, Don’s a little bit of a grumpy guy, but we’re still friends.

GWEN IFILL: So when you write that the Department of Defense was often high-handed and dismissive toward you, both as national security adviser and secretary of state, that wasn’t personal?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, not as secretary of state, because, as secretary of state, you are a Cabinet officer and you pull your own weight with your own assets.

And it’s actually a much different position than being national security adviser, where you really are trying to coordinate and bring everybody to the table. I used to tell President Bush it was a little bit like trying to do foreign policy by remote control, trying to get Secretary A to do this and Secretary B to do that.

But, ultimately, I’m sorry that some of the relationships didn’t work better. But we were under a lot of stress and strain, and personalities come to the fore when you’re under those sorts of stresses.

GWEN IFILL: Did you ever wonder — you were very close, personally close, to President Bush. Did you ever wonder that that was the source of some of — some of the friction?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, possibly, because I know, in Don’s case, he as much as said it in his own book. He thought that I was representing myself in coming and saying that the president wanted this, the president wanted that.

But, of course, I was doing what the president had asked me to do. I would say, “You know, Mr. President, it’s really time you sit down with Colin,” or, “I think maybe Don needs to come in alone,” because I didn’t want to interpose myself between those relationships.

But I think, particularly maybe in Don’s case, he felt that sometimes.

GWEN IFILL: If there’s one theme that runs through the book, it’s the administration’s handling of the war in Iraq and its aftermath.

Do you, at this point now, looking back, have any regrets about the case that was made for war?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think that the case that was made for war perhaps overemphasized — and I say this in the book — what I have called intelligence nuggets, rather than the totality of the picture about Saddam Hussein.

We didn’t invent the threat of Saddam Hussein. He’d used weapons of mass destruction, chemicals, against the Iranians and against his own people.

GWEN IFILL: But he didn’t have them.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, he didn’t have stockpiles of them.

I do think that, when we made the case, we should have made that broader case, not just the case about weapons of mass destruction. He had caused wars. We had gone to war against him in ’91. President Clinton had used force against him in 1998. There hadn’t been an inspector in Iraq since 1998.

He was continuing to threaten his neighbors. He tried to assassinate George H.W. Bush. He was paying Palestinian suicide bombers $25,000. And, oh, by the way, he put 400,000 people in mass graves. You want to talk about a humanitarian disaster.

GWEN IFILL: So, knowing now what you knew then, you would do it again?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I would, because Saddam Hussein was at the center of an unstable Middle East.

We wouldn’t have an Arab spring in Iraq. The Arab spring in Iraq would have started at 9:00 and been done at 4:00, because this is — was the world’s — the region’s most brutal dictator. It would have made what we’re looking at in Syria seem relatively mild in retrospect. And so I’m very glad that he’s gone.

GWEN IFILL: How many times did you consider quitting? You write throughout the book about different moments, different setbacks, different oversights in which you said, I considered resigning.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Right.

Well, there were, as I remember, three times. And they were of different character. And it wasn’t that — I never actually went to the president and said — about, for instance, testifying before the 9/11 Commission, where the idea that the president’s aides shouldn’t testify under oath. And, at that point, had I not been able to testify about what we had done, I think my credibility as national security adviser would have been shot, and it wouldn’t have been worth staying.

I did go to the president and say, when the military commissions executive order came out, and I had not known about it, that if that happened again, either I would have to resign or the White House counsel would.

The one time that it was really more within me was a kind of flashback, if you will, standing on the White House lawn in 2006, right after the 9/11 commemorative service over in — at the church, and there was a plane that was coming, it seemed to me, at us. Obviously, it was on a normal approach. And I just came up short. I thought, oh, my God, it’s headed right for us.

And after that experience, I thought maybe I have been doing this too long.

GWEN IFILL: Each and every time, why didn’t you?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think I felt an obligation to keep going. And, in the final analysis, I liked what I was doing.

GWEN IFILL: At any point, was there any special pressure being the woman in the inner circle or even the African-American woman in the inner circle?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Oh, I never particularly felt any pressure about being the woman. We had strong women in the White House.

Around Katrina, I misread what it meant to be the highest-ranking African-American in the administration. I thought of myself as secretary of state. I went to New York when Katrina happened to go on vacation, after having traveled miles and miles and miles.

And I thought to myself, how could you have been so stupid? This is a huge crisis. You’re one of the president’s closest advisers. And this tragedy in New Orleans has an undeniably sad, black face. And you need to be there.

GWEN IFILL: You had forgotten that you were a symbol?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yes, maybe I had forgotten — and not just a symbol. Maybe I had forgotten that I was a touchstone for people with the administration because of being a high-ranking African-American.

GWEN IFILL: I have to ask you about Moammar Gadhafi, of course.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Ah, yes. I kind of thought you — you might.

GWEN IFILL: You thought I might.

It’s been widely written that he had a fascination with you, and actually wrote a song about you?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yes, yes.

Well, it was kind of creepy, right? And I knew before I went to Libya, because a couple of foreign minister friends had told me. And so when I went there, I kept thinking, all right, whatever his bizarre crush is, your job is to go there, represent the United States, get a supply route through Libya for humanitarian supplies into Sudan, and get out. That’s your job.

And so we were through the diplomatic exchange, which was eerily normal, actually, with Gadhafi. And then he said, “I have a video for you.”

And I thought, oh, no, what in the world is this? And it was actually just scene after scene of me with Vladimir Putin or Hu Jintao, but then set to this song, “Black Flower in the White House,” that he had written by Libya’s best composer, he said.

So I was glad to get on the plane for Algeria.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: I want to end by talking about where we are today, Syria, Iran, both run by dictators, showing no sign of going anywhere. The U.S. seems to be pushing, but not to any good outcome.

Which is the bigger threat?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, Iran, in the sense that it has — it’s the poster child for state sponsorship of terrorism, that it is seeking and making some progress toward a nuclear device, although I sometimes think the Iranians overstate their progress.

But we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of Syria on Iran’s reach. Syria is Iran’s handmaiden in the Middle East. And if the Bashar al-Assad regime were to go down, which I think, in time, it will, it will significantly undermine Iranian reach into the Arab world.

And so we ought to be doing everything that we can to put pressure on the Syrian regime. It has lost the support of its people, and it’s lost the support, largely, of the region. And so it will be a very good day when both of those regimes go. They have worked in concert to bring greater instability to the Middle East than anyone since Saddam Hussein went down.

GWEN IFILL: How heavy a hand should the U.S. apply to make that happen?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, in terms of using financial sanctions and rallying the international community and doing whatever we can by whatever means, we should play a pretty heavy hand.

It doesn’t have to be, necessarily, an overwhelmingly public or rhetorical hand. But I think we have relearned a lesson. The administration said that they were going to reach out a hand of friendship to the Iranians and the Syrians, and the Iranians and the Syrians bit it off.

And so, when you deal with those regimes, you have got to deal with them from a position of strength, because these are regimes that do — will never have our best interests at heart.

GWEN IFILL: Condoleezza Rice, thank you so much.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Thank you. Pleasure to be with you.