jueves, agosto 23, 2007
The dazzler that dimmed
IT IS hard to believe now, but as recently as the spring of 2005 Condoleezza Rice was being touted for the presidency of the United States. She had just been appointed secretary of state in succession to Colin Powell at the start of George Bush's second term, and a world tour was going well. In Paris, the French ambassador to America remarked, "everyone was determined to fall in love" with her. She wowed the crowds in Wiesbaden by arriving in knee-high leather boots. Her spokesman went so far as to fuel speculation about a White House bid by planting a question with a helpful journalist.
Ms Rice's star, which rose so fast, has plunged back into obscurity, and the reason is easy for anyone reading this pair of biographies to see. As secretary of state, she has mostly failed in grappling with a web of problems that she herself helped to create when she was turning out to be a notably weak national security adviser. Mr Powell presciently said of Iraq, "If you break it, you own it." That might serve as an epitaph for Ms Rice's career at the top of American policymaking.
Of the two books, Marcus Mabry's is the more comprehensive, a full-scale biography covering Ms Rice's life from childhood in segregated and violent Birmingham, Alabama, to the present day. He takes as his book's title a saying in the Rice family that, as a black American (let alone a female one), you needed to be "twice as good" to succeed. Yet much of what he recounts belies this. Ms Rice grew up in what may then have been America's most racially charged city; she herself heard and felt the explosion when white supremacists blew up the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church there in 1963. Her family, however, moved to far more tolerant Colorado when she was 12, where her father quickly rose to a senior administrative position at the University of Denver.
Ms Rice's early career—first to a place at that same university, then to Stanford, then to the National Security Council in Washington, DC, then back to Stanford to become provost at the age of only 38—shows doors opening readily enough. Mr Mabry produces nothing to suggest she needed to be anything like twice as good.
Her biggest break came in 2000, when Candidate George Bush chose her to coach him in foreign policy, of which he admitted to knowing almost nothing. Mr Mabry makes much of the instant rapport between these two very different types, the cautious blue-stocking and the reformed hell-raiser, though he cannot entirely explain it. Ms Rice has described the candidate as having "an incredibly inquisitive mind". Mr Bush was later to describe Ms Rice as "the most powerful woman in the history of the world".
Which makes it mysterious how she came to serve him so badly. The national security adviser is meant to co-ordinate foreign-policy making. Yet in that job Ms Rice seemed entirely unable to resolve the many disputes between Donald Rumsfeld at Defence and Mr Powell at State. Even without that failure, it would have been impossible not to allot her much of the blame for the mistakes in Iraq. If she realised America was sending too few troops and had rejected all post-war planning, she should have told the president: she had his ear, and access. If she did not realise, she should have done.
Mr Mabry dwells at length on Ms Rice's inability to admit to error. This quality of impenitence also extends to her refusal to accept any blame for failing to anticipate the attacks of September 11th 2001. The book presents abundant evidence of the warnings repeatedly sent to her by the CIA (one of the agency's untrumpeted successes) and of her failure to take them seriously. He notes that Ms Rice seems to have had a blind spot about the potency of terrorism in general.
Glenn Kessler's book concentrates on Ms Rice's first two years as secretary of state and her ultimately failed attempt to relaunch American foreign policy. It is a fascinating account of how diplomacy is conducted up close.
Mr Kessler pays due credit to Ms Rice's intelligence and energy. But his clear conclusion is that most of the problems she has tried to solve have been beyond her. He is excoriating about the limits of what Ms Rice's team calls "practical idealism"; to Mr Kessler the term is "nonsensical". Her campaign for democracy in the Middle East comes in for particular criticism: when elections bring awkward results, as in Lebanon and Palestine, Ms Rice's instinct has been simply to treat the results as aberrations, ignoring her own words about democracy. The administration has long ago given up trying to promote freer societies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both American allies. Efforts to keep Iran non-nuclear have yielded nothing, and the war in Iraq still defies solution.
It is possible, Mr Kessler concludes, that a future historian will see Ms Rice more favourably. But, as her current job draws to an end, the prospects do not look good.
Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power.
By Marcus Mabry.
Rodale; 362 pages; $27.50
The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy.
By Glenn Kessler.
St Martin's Press; 304 pages; $25.95 and £17.99