Rice’s Mission

Published November 19, 2004, issue of November 19, 2004.
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If there were any doubts about President Bush’s inclination to learn from the foreign-policy mistakes of his first term, he seemed to lay them to rest this week with his nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. True to form, the president is not looking back but steaming forward, and critics be damned.

Coming on the heels of his naming of White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to head the Justice Department, Bush’s elevation of Rice carries an unmistakable tone of defiance. In the face of intense, worldwide criticism of his first-term policies, the president’s reply seems to be that he’s not planning to reach out in search of a middle ground in his second term. Relying on what he sees as his Election Day mandate, he is choosing personal aides to fill top Cabinet posts in place of departing leaders known for their distinctive personalities and independent constituencies. In so doing, he is tightening his control over the machinery of policymaking and shutting off avenues of dissent.

Paradoxically, the moves could signal the beginning of a new pragmatism in an administration that’s been marked until now by a bizarre mixture of incompetence and ideological zealotry. Gonzales is known for hard-line views on civil liberties, but he’s not a crusader of the Christian right in the mold of the outgoing attorney general, John Ashcroft. It’s to be hoped that his entry to the Justice Department will signal a softening of the administration’s moralizing tone on touchstone issues like abortion and gay rights.

As for Rice, she is a capable scholar and public servant, and she’s well liked by her interlocutors on the world stage, an essential quality in the nation’s top diplomat. Moreover, her extraordinary closeness to Bush will give an authority to her diplomatic dealings that Colin Powell never had, because her word, unlike Powell’s, will be the word of the president.

What she doesn’t bring to the job is a penchant for challenging Pentagon hawks or defending the diplomatic approach that is the State Department’s primary mission. Choosing her seems to be part of a larger Bush plan for quashing internal debate within the administration and sharpening his team’s focus. He seems to think that the White House suffered during his first four years from too many conflicting viewpoints flowing into and out of the administration, distracting it from its goals.

The truth is the opposite. The first Bush term suffered from too little debate, too little willingness to challenge the assumptions that the president and his top aides brought with them, too little inclination to question the facts marshaled in support of those assumptions.

The administration’s record on Iraq and terrorism is a dreary litany of tin-eared, bull-headed mismanagement: the failure to address danger signs in the months before the September 11 attacks; the decision to punish Al Qaeda by going after a bystander, Saddam Hussein; the manipulation of intelligence on Iraq’s defunct weapons programs and its nonexistent ties with Al Qaeda; the bungled planning for the postwar occupation, paving the way for the current quagmire; and not least, the near-systematic alienation of our allies and friends around the world, squandering our nation’s post-September 11 moral standing and leaving us isolated and reviled, a blundering giant alone on the world stage. As the president’s national security adviser, Rice had a hand in every one of these blunders.

If there’s room for optimism about the prospects for Bush’s second term, it’s partly because of the very mandate the president claims. His clear-cut victory on November 2 leaves critics at home and abroad sobered, at least for now, with the knowledge that Bush is the only game in town. Mainstream leaders in Europe and in moderate Arab states have no choice but to follow Bush’s lead or face four years of deadlock and deterioration.

On a host of issues, from global terrorism to Middle East peace to the Kyoto treaty on global warming, the president has made his point abundantly clear in the past four years. He now has an opportunity to show that his vision is constructive, not just contrarian, by charting a course that others can follow. If he chooses to lead rather than confront, he might find a world ready to work with him. The challenge for secretary-designate Rice is to help the president find that pragmatic, achievable vision.

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