Bush's War

Elisabeth Bumiller

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A Washington correspondent for The New York Times since Sept. 10, 2001, Bumiller has covered the Bush White House throughout the Iraq war and is the author of Condoleeza Rice: An American Life: A Biography. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Jan. 17, 2008.

9/11, where is Condoleezza Rice? What role does she take upon herself?

It was a quiet day, or so she thought, because the president was away, as we all remember. ...

So she was in her office at about 9:00 a.m. when her assistant told her that a plane had hit the World Trade Center tower. She thought that was odd, and she called the president. ... They both agreed that it was a bad pilot. Then a few minutes later she learned it was a commercial airliner, and she thought that was exceptionally odd, and she called the president again.

And then, when she got word that the second tower had been hit, she knew what it was, and she went immediately down to the White House bunker, the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, which is basically the bomb shelter that was built under the East Wing during World War II for Roosevelt, and spent the next, I would say, four, five, six hours in some of the most harrowing moments on her life.

By this time, the vice president was down there, and she sat next to him at this table, and for a while what they did, they were trying to track planes. It was an odd thing for the national security adviser to be doing, but she said, "That's what we had to do, because there were still a lot of planes up in the air, squawking around." So they were trying to figure out where they were.

But then they watched the World Trade Center collapse on the television down there. And it was this horrible moment. There was silence. A short time later they got word that another plane was headed for what they thought was the White House, and Cheney gave an order to shoot it down. ... It disappeared from the radar screen, and they thought perhaps they had shot it down. Then they got word that there was a plane down in this field in Pennsylvania, and there was this horror that went through the room, because they thought, oh my God, they'd shot the plane down.

Condi Rice recalls how they were on the phone with the Pentagon saying: "Come on, you've got to tell us: Did we shoot down a commercial airliner? You must know." And there was this panic in the room for a while until they learned what had really happened.

How did they learn [that they had not shot down the plane, which turned out to be United Airlines flight 93]?

I don't actually know. I think they must have gotten word from the Pentagon, or also, they were watching CNN; they were watching television. They were learning in real time almost like everybody else. ...

[What was Ms. Rice's role in the president's decision to include the line about going after countries that "harbor" terrorists during his speech on the evening of 9/11?]

Bush couldn't decide whether to use the word that we were going to go after nations that "tolerated" or "encouraged" terrorists, or should he go ahead and just use the word "harbor." And Condi Rice said: "Well, you can use it now or later, but it's good to do it early. These first impressions matter." So he did use the word "harbor," which became a part of what became known as the Bush Doctrine: that we would go after states who harbored terrorists. And that was the speech, that very brief [speech] he made to the nation around that evening.

[By that night, when they're out of the bunker, what do you know about Secretary Rice's mind-set?]

... The Secret Service told her it was too dangerous to go home [that night], ... so she was going to sleep in her office, and the president said, "No, of course you must sleep in the residence." So they gave her a room upstairs in the residence. And she went upstairs -- this is about 1:00 in the morning -- and she's sort of dully watching the television cable news and flipping channels, and then she turns the light off, and she tosses and she turns, and she can't sleep.

This is very different from the image of this tough, steely national security adviser that's been projected. And I asked her, I said, "Were you at any point blaming yourself for what had happened that day because of all the missed clues?" And she said, "I wasn't, not yet." … She's never taken any responsibility for what happened publicly. But to me, it was actually a human moment, showing a woman who was really examining her role in what had happened.

Her responsibility, meaning not understanding the threat was so real?

Right, not heeding a lot of warnings from [counterterrorism expert] Richard Clarke, among others, and all those warnings in the summer of 2001. … She was very methodically going about developing the Bush administration counterterrorism strategy, as opposed to the Clinton administration strategy, which they felt was scattershot. They were going to do it in a big way. They thought they had all the time in the world. ...

There's a debate about [Iraqi National Congress founder Ahmad] Chalabi and how the State Department viewed him. What was Ms. Rice's point of view on that debate?

... The president was not a big fan of Chalabi, and she would have sided with the president on that one. Chalabi was really the darling of Defense -- of [then-Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, particularly of [his deputy, Paul] Wolfowitz. ...

How did Ms. Rice fit in with the other heavyweights? How did she view her role as NSA?

She once described the job to me as translating the president's instincts into policy. She saw herself, as national security adviser, as a super-duper staff member, not as a person who had an opinion or a policy in her own right.

And the problem she had in the first term was that she was in charge of coordinating the elephants in the room, and they were [Vice President Dick] Cheney, Rumsfeld and [then-Secretary of State Colin] Powell. Between them, they had decades of experience in Washington and in wars, in the military. Cheney, of course, had been defense secretary. Rumsfeld had already been defense secretary. Powell was a war hero. And she had two years of mid-level White House experience behind her; she had been the Soviet expert on the Bush 41 National Security Council staff.

So she quickly saw, as a student of power, that the source of her power was her closeness to the president. She had an extraordinary bond with the president, and she really became the president's friend, and not, I would say, someone who was willing to challenge him too hard. I mean, she challenged him, but in the end, he was boss.

[There was a debate over whether she was capable as national security adviser.] ... You write about [then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard] Armitage going in and telling her that ... her office is just not doing the job they were supposed to do, she was not handling the debate, and therefore Rumsfeld was running roughshod and taking control of the war. What's your point of view on all that?

I would agree with it. I think certainly up until the fall of 2003 that was the case, which takes you all the way through the war, all the way through the run-up to the war and the major operations of the war. ...

[In] the run-up to the war, she's the national security adviser of the United States, and she had to basically employ spies on her staff to go over and ferret information out of the Pentagon. You know, one of her staff members would put on his military uniform and go over and pretend to be visiting friends to pull out information she needed on troop strength.

And she sort of says, "Oh, that was just the Pentagon; the Pentagon is always like that." No, not exactly. It was never quite like that. It was Rumsfeld who really was withholding major war planning information.

The other really important development for her in the war is in October 2002. They're preparing for the war in Iraq, and in October, a decision was made to turn over all postwar operations to the Pentagon, not to the State Department, which normally had done. Condi Rice and Colin Powell signed off on that, and it became one of the worst decisions made in the run-up to the Iraq war.

When you asked her about that, what did she say?

She says it was not a controversial decision. She said it was not a big deal at the time. Why wouldn't the Pentagon run postwar Iraq? That was what the Pentagon had done in World War II. Well, it was not what the Pentagon had done in Bosnia or at other conflicts in the last decade or two decades.

But bear in mind, the reason it wasn't a controversial decision was because nobody expected us to be there very long. [Then-Under Secretary of Defense] Doug Feith over at the Pentagon was telling people we would be out in three months, that he anticipated postwar operations to last just into the summer, and then the Iraqis would be ready to take over.

You write about the way Rumsfeld treated Secretary Rice. How did Rumsfeld view Secretary Rice and the job she was doing?

He viewed her as a glorified Russian studies graduate student. Now, he was condescending to almost everyone, except for the president. But Rice was younger, a woman. There are many times when he was very dismissive of her in meetings.

One of his favorite techniques was to do what, in White House parlance, is called a "table drop." There's a National Security Council meeting or just a principals' meeting of everybody -- all the National Security principals, the Cabinet members, everybody but the president -- and there's an agenda. And everybody has distributed papers ahead of time to read so there can be a coherent, efficient discussion at the meeting.

Rumsfeld was famous for coming in a few minutes late and then dropping his own document in the middle of a table, so that everybody would be forced to pick it up and read it, completely derailing the meeting. It would be comic if it weren't so serious.

He does this one time too many, and Rice at one point says: "No, Don, we're not going to do that now. We're going to do this now." And there's this big standoff. People who were in the room remember this as a time she began to push back. And he picked up his papers and huffed away, but he tried it again the next time.

With regard to the military commissions, Rice and Powell did not see the order before it happened. You write that Rice was incensed. Explain her point of view about this particular period of time.

She was furious that there had been an end run around her. But what's interesting is that there's nothing much she can do about it. He's the vice president, and what you see here is that he was running foreign policy, or a pretty powerful parallel foreign policy operation, from the White House. ... [H]e was running a separate foreign policy operation from the national security adviser. ...

So what you see here is, in some sense, chaos or dysfunction. Cheney was, for her, a real, in many cases, an adversary ...

What was their relationship like?

... I think friendly, correct, but they had real differences that are just now beginning to come out. From the very first days of the administration, they had issues. Cheney went to the president in early 2001 and said he wanted to run National Security Council meetings in the president's absence. Now, you could look at that as, is it just a silly Washington sort of bureaucratic fight? But in fact, if that had happened, Cheney would have been the de facto national security adviser. Now, you can argue he already was. But when Condi Rice got wind of this, she went to the president and threw a fit, in the words of one administration official I talked to, and went to the president, said: "Mr. President, this is what national security advisers do. They've already run National Security Council meetings in the president's absence."

And the president sided with Condi Rice. So she won that battle, but I think over the next few years, she may have lost the war. But what she saw from those early days was how formidable the vice president was going to be on foreign policy. ...

Describe the meeting where Armitage says to Powell, "You should talk to the president," then Powell calls Ms. Rice. What happens?

He says, "I need to see the president," and she says, "I think that's a good idea." Obviously the depressing thing for Powell is that he has to call the national security adviser to get an appointment with the president. He's secretary of state. You'd think he could call himself, but that's not how it worked in the first term for him.

So she says, "Come by," and they have dinner. The three of them have dinner in the White House in August 2002, and Powell lays out in what everyone now knows is the famous "You break it, you own it" rule, and he tells Bush of all his trepidations and the problems with an American-led invasion of Iraq.

And Bush listens. And Powell felt good about it afterward. Condi Rice calls him afterward and says, "That was really good; that worked well." And he feels that he's had an effect.

What is the point that Powell makes?

Powell really promotes going to the United Nations. That's what we do. That's the action item after this long, long dinner where he unloads his concerns on the president. ...

[After this apparent success, Vice President Cheney gives a speech in which he seems to reverse the decision of going to the U.N. What was Rice's reaction?]

... [S]he thought things were under control because they decided -- she and the president, Powell and Cheney -- at a meeting at Camp David in August [2002] had decided they would go to the United Nations first and try and get the United Nations' backing for using force against Saddam Hussein. They felt they were all on the same page.

Then shortly after that meeting, within days, Cheney gives a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Tennessee, and basically it is a war call. Powell is enraged. He's up in New York vacationing, and he's in a rage: What has happened? And Condi Rice was at the ranch with the president and hears this speech, sees this speech and goes to the president, says, "Mr. President, I think the vice president has boxed you in; we have a problem here." … And the president, in her words, says, "Well, just tell Dick what he should say."

So she, in her telling, writes a couple of lines into his next speech, which pulls back from threatening all-out war, and says that weapons inspections are not an end in themselves. What the vice president said in the first speech was that basically weapons inspections are useless. So, in her mind, he was something that had to be managed. Now, of course when she tells it today, she says, "Well, you know, he didn't realize." I mean, please.

Does she call him up?

... We don't know what the vice president says, but in her telling, she calls up the vice president and says, "Mr. Vice President, you may have boxed the president in on this, because we have just agreed to go to the United Nations," and that the assumption was to call for weapons inspections. And here the vice president is saying: "What's the point? Weapons inspections are false comfort. They're going to be useless." ...

I would say he was quite aware of what he was doing and had become frustrated by all the talk of going to the U.N. He always thought that going to the U.N. was ... a waste of time. ...

The White House was not happy with the Aug. 15 [2002] Scowcroft op-ed piece. Secretary Rice makes a phone call. Afterward he tells you that he's bewildered to what has happened to his disciple.

... The president and Condi Rice are at the ranch, and there's been this beginning of a drumbeat about going to war with Iraq. And Brent Scowcroft, Condi Rice's old boss, the former national security adviser under the first President Bush, has a piece in The Wall Street Journal questioning, seriously questioning, the wisdom of an invasion of Iraq. …

She's very angry, and she calls him up and says: "How could you do this to us? How could you not tell us? You should talk to us." And very harsh words are exchanged. This is the beginning of a bad period between Condi Rice and Brent Scowcroft. It lasts for a number of years before they really speak to each other again. He told friends afterward, or during this period, that he doesn't understand what has happened to "my disciple" -- you know, "This woman, I taught her so much." He really plucked her out of Stanford and brought her to Washington during Bush 41.

He was bewildered by what had happened to her. He felt that she had drunk the Kool-Aid, you know? She really was schooled in the realist school of foreign policy, in the pragmatic school, and he felt that she was embracing this vision of George Bush about spreading democracy. ...

Secretary Rice lays the blame on Tenet for the "16 words," [President Bush's statement during his Jan. 28, 2003 State of the Union address that, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa"]. What is her point of view on that incident?

Her point of view was that it was the job of the CIA to take those words out. She took a very tough line on that, even though her deputy, Steve Hadley, agreed to share the blame with Tenet and offered to resign because of those words. But Rice took a very tough line. There's a lot of bad blood between Rice and Tenet as a result of that. And to this day, she says, "It was the CIA's responsibility." … That's not the only dispute they had, but it's a big one. ...

Powell's speech to the U.N., where is Secretary Rice?

It was kind of, like, this was the big production, this was the big show, and Powell had to present it. He was the most credible member of the administration around the world, and they were going to use Powell's credibility to sell this. There had been a lot of attention in the run-up to this speech. Powell had decamped [to] the CIA -- he had been given a text by the White House to present to the U.N. He felt it was so full of half-baked truths and allegations that couldn't be backed up and was so hysterical, he had gone over to the CIA to try and get the bad stuff out and make sure it stood up factually, and had been a number of days out there.

Condi Rice had gone out one night on a Sunday evening, had gone out there and had questioned Powell at one point and said, "Is that the best you can do?" She was very concerned about this performance.

So the big day finally arrives. And she and the president, some other staff members were watching around lunchtime, in the afternoon, in the White House, in, I think, the small dining room off of the Oval Office. The president is eating cheese and crackers and drinking a Diet Coke. It's almost like they're watching a show. She was nervous about it, but she was very pleased that Powell had been so persuasive and had really sold the public on this war. ...

The overall view was this had gone very well. They were really pleased with how well it had gone. That performance changed a lot of minds. Powell doesn't like to talk about it today. ...

You write about Rice's skepticism about certain decisions around the time the announcement is made about the country going to war.

On March 19, they're all in the situation room in the morning. The president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, the military are all there. The generals, the commanders in Iraq, are up on the big screens in the situation room, and it's almost as if this was a set piece for history, as if they knew that they were doing this for history. And the president goes around and asks each general and commander: "Are you ready? Do you have everything you need?" And they all assure him, "Yes, Mr. President, we're ready."

Then at the end, the president makes a little speech about for the good of the world, you know, may God bless the troops, and gives a little speech and gives the order to execute the war. It was all very serious and very somber. But again, I think there was a bit of theatrics here. ...

But Rice at that point goes back to her office, because when this happens, there's not a whole lot to do at the White House. The whole operation moves to the military, and the White House waits, and she thought she was going to have a very quiet afternoon. But a few hours later, she was summoned quickly into the Oval Office because [George] Tenet is there, CIA director is there, and he's got sort of a crude, hand-drawn map. He's telling the president that we think that Saddam Hussein is in this bunker at a place called Dora Farms in Baghdad, [which] he used as a home and as a retreat. And they think they've got him there. They've gotten some very good intelligence.

There's a lot of confusion. [Gen.] Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is running down to try and find the coordinates of this place. There's a lot of discussion about, "Should we do an early strike, a quick surprise strike, a decapitation attempt to take out Saddam before the war even starts?"

Condi Rice is watching all this unfold and had said to me afterward it made her uneasy. It was way too disorganized; it's not what she liked to see. She said, "It's just no way to run a railroad," and felt that decisions were being made by the seat of people's pants. ... I think he's given half an hour to make the decision, because they're fighting the coming dawn in Baghdad. ... But the decision was made.

And interestingly, in that meeting, there was lots of discussion. The president asked all of his senior advisers what they thought. But at the end, he kicked everybody out and sat alone with Cheney. And Powell later remarked that he thought it was quite interesting that at the end of the day Cheney had the last word. And we know what happened. They tried the decapitation attempt, and of course, it failed. ...

[What was happening in the White House when the statute of Saddam was toppled in Baghdad?]

All over the White House, all over the West Wing, televisions were turned on. Everyone saw the statue topple down. And Condi Rice was ecstatic. This was the end, or very close to the end, or so they thought.

She, at that point, was having briefings every day from her military advisers and these two guys came in to brief her that day. When they walked in -- they wear uniforms -- she and her deputy, Steve Hadley, were standing up. They shook their hands, the two military guys, and they congratulated them because they were members of the American military that just, they thought, had won this war in Iraq.

There were tears in her eyes, and she was very moved by this, and they called off the briefing. One of the military officials who was going to brief her, but he was now walking back to his office, exchanged words with his colleague and just said, "Oh, my God." They were so alarmed and so unsettled because these military officials saw that Condi Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, thought it was all over. And they were flabbergasted by their naiveté.

[What was her reaction to the looting?]

Rice was flabbergasted by the looting. She couldn't understand why it was happening, what was going on. But she saw that it was enormously damaging to the image of the United States, not to say the least that it was damaging to Iraq. She also saw that, in her view, [then-postwar administrator Lt. Gen.] Jay Garner was just not working; that he was walking around, in her view, mouthing platitudes and not getting control of the situation.

She noted that he wasn't even able to get into Baghdad for two or three weeks, but as if that were his fault. He couldn't get into Baghdad because there was such violence, the military wouldn't let him get in. And by the time he got in, of course, half the ministries were gone.

So she tells Rumsfeld, "This is not working," and Rumsfeld says to her -- this is after National Security Council meeting -- "Yes, I know it's not working, and I've already got somebody lined up to take over." That is, of course, [L. Paul] Jerry Bremer, who at the time Rice thought was a great idea, because he was a take-charge personality, Republican, longtime former adviser to Henry Kissinger but not ideological; just had a reputation for [being] a pragmatic guy who could get things done and who would seize control.

CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] Orders 1 and 2 come down quickly, [abolishing the Baath Party and dissolving the Iraqi military]. ... What is Secretary Rice's point of view?

She didn't know about them. Now, she later said, "OK, well, I knew they were maybe going to happen, but I didn't know when they were happening." She thought Bremer was becoming the emperor over there, that he was making decisions without telling anybody in Washington. They couldn't have this. And she felt that he was just cutting her out and cutting out a lot of people.

Now, Bremer says that he was taking orders from Rumsfeld and that he assumed that Rumsfeld was sharing this information with the White House and throughout the government. But, he says, he assumed wrong. ... She was encouraged by him in the beginning; she thought it was a great choice. But then she saw that there was too much policy being made in Baghdad and not enough in Washington. ...

Describe the April 5, [2004] meeting where Bush chastises Rumsfeld in the Oval Office. What took place?

What the White House says took place is that Bush reprimanded Rumsfeld for not telling him about the Abu Ghraib pictures, keeping the president out of the loop, and for the scandal itself.

Now interestingly, in a White House that almost never leaks, this leaked out very quickly. I was one of the reporters it leaked to. … The White House very much wanted it known that the president was unhappy with his defense secretary and described in ways it never usually did, you know, encounters in the Oval Office between the president, his defense secretary. So obviously what was going on here is the president wanted to distance himself from the scandal and put some blame on Rumsfeld.

Why?

… The White House said the president was furious. But I actually think the president was furious because this was a terrible black eye on the reputation of the United States. Bush knew this and obviously there were beginning to be problems with Rumsfeld. I mean, this was probably not the beginning. It was probably somewhere in the middle of problems he had with Rumsfeld.

Why was Powell asked to resign?

I can tell you the president was never comfortable with Powell. Powell was a big celebrity who had been brought on in 2000 when Bush was running for president. He brought to the Bush campaign and to Bush himself a lot of stature, gravitas, but he was never part of the inner circle of Vulcans, the foreign policy advisers led by Condi Rice who advised the president during the campaign. He was kind of the window dressing, if you will.

Bush never really developed a relationship with him and always felt that Powell put his own reputation first before the reputation of the president, of the administration, and felt that Powell was too concerned about how he was viewed in Europe, where Powell is very popular, and that Powell just thought too much about himself. Also, Powell had not been with the program a lot during the first term.

Why does Secretary Rice get the job as secretary of state? What are the expectations?

She didn't initially want the job. She wanted to be defense secretary; that was her background, was Soviet military affairs. ... She got the job because the president asked.

He knew that in the second term, after the two wars in his watch, that he really would have to reach out diplomatically. He wanted somebody he could trust there. Rice was, at that point, a star in the administration, and he wanted somebody he could work with.

What were her expectations about the job?

She says that this was never laid out explicitly with the president, but she knew implicitly that she would have a much freer hand than Powell had had because of the trust the president had in her. She also knew that, as a Cabinet member now, she would be on a somewhat more equal footing with Rumsfeld and that she would have her own policy. She would no longer be, in her eyes, just a staff member. She would be a Cabinet member, the nation's chief diplomat, and she would be able to drive policy more in a way that she felt she hadn't been able to do in the White House.

You write that Rice felt Cheney's secrecy about the [CIA's secret interrogation] "black sites" was a dangerous breach of process and trust. Explain that.

It took her a while, but she got increasingly frustrated with the vice president and felt that he was making his own policy and certainly cutting her out and not always including the president. ...

But here's what's interesting about that. She was reluctant, as far as we know, to confront Cheney directly. Instead, she went after someone who was safer for her to dress down, and that was Alberto Gonzales, then who was the White House counsel who worked hand in hand with Cheney and with [vice presidential counsel David] Addington in developing these policies. The view among Rice's very close associates at the White House was that Gonzales didn't really believe in the policies as much as that he was persuadable and not a strong character, and could be brought along by Addington and the vice president. ...

[What happens when Rice finally takes on Rumsfeld?]

... Rice's counselor at the State Department was Phil Zelikow, an old friend of hers. ... She brings him on and tasks him with keeping track of Iraq. Zelikow makes a number of trips to Iraq over a period of a year and begins to write her increasingly alarmist and bleak memos about the situation as he sees it, in very dramatic prose, and tells her this is just not working and explains why it's not working: that we don't have enough troops; there's no coherent strategy. … He's increasingly aggravated and frustrated by Rumsfeld, who he feels, rightly, just wants to get the troops out; that this war has gone on too long. ...

There's a meeting in August, a National Security Council meeting in August 2006, where there's a lot of debate about what are we going to do. Washington sort of comes back to school in September, and things are a mess in Iraq, and we need a strategy going into the midterm elections -- very politically driven, as always, in this White House. The president starts asking tough questions about, what are we going to do, and Rumsfeld is still talking about troop withdrawals ... and talking about, they've got to learn how to ride the bike themselves. At this point, the president says, "Yeah, but if you fall off the bike, somebody has to help them get back on." And it's an implication that we've got to help these guys. It's really the beginning of the end for Rumsfeld, who is out by November 2006, as we know, the day after the election.

Condi Rice was reading the memos from Zelikow all the time. Sometimes they were formal memos; sometimes they were just quick things he would send to her. But she was getting bombarded with this every day by Zelikow. And she didn't disagree with him, you know? She'll say, "Well, prose was a little overwrought. I'm very aware of the way Phil writes." But basically she thought he made sense.

Why did the president resist getting rid of Rumsfeld?

The president has a hard time firing people. This is not unique to Rumsfeld. But in this case, he was very reluctant to get rid of the defense secretary. He had a sense of loyalty to Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld had seen the administration, the country through two wars. He had managed the first one well. And the president also thought that, it would be a sign of weakness and a sign that he felt the Iraq policy was a failure if he replaced the architect of that policy, the defense secretary.

And then in the spring of 2006, when ... all the retired generals said he had to go, that kept Rumsfeld in the job, I would say, a good four or five more months. Because at that point, if you know this White House, the president was never going to get rid of Rumsfeld, because he would seen as the ultimate sign of weakness to cave to these generals, these armchair generals, as he saw them. ...

What do we know about Rice's role in Rumsfeld's firing?

It was a critical role. She knew that the president wanted to get rid of Rumsfeld. That was hardly a secret. She also knew that he was not willing to do it until he found somebody else he was comfortable with. So she enthusiastically recommended her old friend Bob Gates to the president, and also spoke to Gates before he took the job about the nature of the job and what it would entail. She never told me this explicitly; implicitly it was pretty clear that one of Gates' concerns was Cheney, and would he be able to work in an administration with such a powerful vice president who had different policy ideas than he did.

And evidently he was assured. He took the job. But Rice never got directly involved in the meetings at the White House about how to handle Rumsfeld's dismissal. She stayed away from those. But she didn't really need to [tell] everybody to know what she thought. Everybody knew what she thought.

Describe Secretary Rice's position at this point.

She's more powerful than she's ever been. The problem is, she's got not too many months left to do some pretty big things, which is to try and reach a deal for peace in the Middle East, to try and work out a good deal with North Korea and to work on Iran. She now has the power, but as the days come to a close in this administration, it's seeping away from her every day as we get closer and closer to January 2009.

Right now within the administration, with the exception of Dick Cheney on certain issues, she's running foreign policy.

You say she's pulled away from Iraq.

As someone says to me in my book, I think if you put a lie detector on her right now, you would find out that she thinks there's not a whole lot she can do right now about Iraq. She can try and push the political reconciliation, but in terms of the war, there's not a whole lot she can do. She really has turned her attention to another intractable problem, the Middle East. And it's perhaps a sign of Iraq right now and what they think can be done in Iraq that she thinks there's almost more hope in the Middle East.

So she has turned a lot of Iraq over to her deputy, John Negroponte. She makes secret trips to Baghdad all the time, but her real focus now is elsewhere.

Rice becomes more effective pushing Bush than Powell was. What is taking place here?

Well, she's changed; the world has changed; the president has changed. And Powell is very bitter right now that almost to every issue he pushed in the first term and was rebuffed on, she's now pushing in the same way, if not more so -- classic American realist foreign policy, pragmatic foreign policy, results, get it done. That was not the way things were in the first term.

So she's a beneficiary of her close relationship with the president, who trusts her; who, in many cases, is being led along by her, certainly I think in the Middle East. And also she's a beneficiary of the fact that the United States has had to reach out diplomatically in the second term. In this case she's leaning on Bush, but she's leaning on an open door.

Has Secretary Rice compromised herself?

Compromised herself? No. What I say about her is that because she's embraced so many ideologies over her years in government and out, the question is, what does she really stand for? What is her ideology? Is she a realist? Is she an idealist? ...

I say her real ideology is succeeding. That's another way of saying she's, right now, a classic pragmatist -- you know, whatever it takes. I mean, she's been a Democrat. She was a classic realist under Bush 41. She became a hawk and an idealist and under Bush 43. And now she's really kind of gone back to the way she was trained, which was pragmatic foreign policy.

In the end, was Cheney weakened by the shifting of powers?

On some issues -- the Middle East, for example -- Cheney just doesn't seem to be a factor. On some big issues like Iran, I think he's very much a factor. So he's pulled back on some things. She [is] certainly ascendant on foreign policy.

It's funny that John Bolton, who was very close to Cheney when he was at the State Department and was the combative ambassador to the U.N. in the second term, now no longer in the administration, he's very critical of Condi Rice. But the worst he can say about her is that the president doesn't supervise her enough, you know? I find that a great quote, but it tells you that she's throwing her weight around.

Has the surge resolved any of the major problems of Iraq?

The surge is very fragile. So far, its main success has been military. Violence is down from a year ago. But you don't notice the administration holding a lot of press conferences and trumpeting how great things are going in Iraq. You don't notice the president making any more speeches on aircraft carriers saying, "Mission accomplished."

They know better than anyone how fragile this is. And while there has been a bit of political reconciliation as a result of the surge, most recently at the beginning of this year, there's a long, long way to go. And it's really unclear how far they're going to get before the end of the administration.

In the end, is Secretary Rice a success or failure with regard to Iraq policy? What is her role? Is she concerned about her legacy? What will her legacy be?

I hate to be equivocal here. The past will tell you that it was a very badly managed war -- the occupation, not the war itself.

What do the tea leaves tell us now? The tea leaves don't give us any answers right now. Where will Iraq be in five years? In 10 years? I don't know that Condi Rice could tell you. It could be chaos; it could be a semblance of democracy. I don't think she could tell you.

I know what she hopes. And their hopes have been revised downward steadily since 2003, since the beginning of the war. But I don't think they can tell you. They've been through too many disasters and failures at this point.

What does Secretary Rice think her legacy will be?

She is hoping that her legacy is not completely Iraq, but it's going to be a big part of her legacy. That's why she's working so hard in the Middle East right now, because she wants some form of success in another part of the Middle East, between the Israelis and Palestinians. But she will always be remembered as one of the chief promoters of the Iraq war, who did not raise dissenting opinions about it, dissenting views about it at the White House.

Are there any stories we've forgotten?

The important thing to remember about Condi Rice is that in December 2002, Bush called her into the Oval Office and asked her point blank, "Do you think we should do this?," and he meant war with Iraq, and she said, "Yes." … In December 2002, it was decided.

[Does she regret her statements about weapons of mass destruction?]

... She doesn't regret saying that "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." She regrets that it was taken with such alarm. If you ask her, she'll say she thought it was a great line, and it worked for her. She'd heard it in a meeting of this Iraq group that was promoting the Iraq war at the White House. … I think it was Michael Gerson's line, the chief White House speechwriter, and she liked it, so she used it on CNN. …

Now, she's sorry that weapons of mass destruction weren't found in Iraq, and she thinks there were mistakes made in the management of the war, but she doesn't think the war was a mistake. … She thinks it was still the right thing to do to get rid of Saddam Hussein. He was a bad guy in the neighborhood. The world is better without him; the United States is better without him; the Iraqis are better without him. …

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posted march 24, 2008

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