No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington
By Condoleezza Rice
Crown Publishers, 766 pages

At 766 pages, Condoleezza Rice’s memoir of her service as national-security adviser and secretary of state is not long as such memoirs go. Henry Kissinger’s ran 3,955 pages in three volumes; George Shultz’s book, covering six and a half years as secretary of state, ran 1,184 pages, with small print; Madeleine Albright’s memoir of her four years, in what was in retrospect a holiday from history, ran 548 pages. Rice covers a decade, starting in 1999 when she joined George W. Bush’s presidential campaign as foreign-affairs adviser.

She has written a straightforward chronological account, providing a great deal of detail but relatively little reflection on the lessons of her experience. The lessons she does draw and that one can draw about her tenure are worth noting, however, particularly on the issue that appears to have been the most important to her personally, to which she devoted most of her last two years as secretary of state and nine chapters (and parts of others) in this book: the Middle East peace process.


Rice’s roles in the first and second terms of the Bush administration differed. As national-security adviser, she viewed her role as an “honest broker” managing competing views within the administration. She writes that she often argued vociferously with Vice President Dick Cheney and had continual problems with his “ultra-hawkish” staff, had a “complicated” relationship with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, with whom she “often clashed,” and could not break a “cycle of distrust and dysfunction” between Rumsfeld and her predecessor as secretary of state, Colin Powell.

Nevertheless, the administration handled its initial crises with considerable success. The first came within two months, when an American surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet, killing the Chinese pilot, and the Chinese detained the aircraft and 24-person crew; over 10 tense days, the administration avoided an escalation, defused the situation, and got the plane and crew back. After 9/11, Bush mobilized the country and the administration organized the war in Afghanistan within a month, removing the Taliban in weeks. After Pakistani terrorists attacked India’s parliament in December 2001, the administration prevented an imminent war between two nuclear-armed enemies. Colombia was turned from a nearly failed state into an important ally. A massive African AIDS relief plan was organized, which Rice describes as “one of the greatest acts of compassion by any country in history.”

With respect to Iraq, Rice has no major disclosures, but she succinctly summarizes the considerations that led to the war, arguing it was not one of choice, given the long list of UN resolutions ignored, the long absence of inspections, the steady unraveling of sanctions, the unanimous view that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his chemical and biological weapons, the near unanimous conclusion of both U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies that Hussein was rebuilding his nuclear-weapons capacity, the continual attacks on U.S. aircraft over the no-fly zone, and a post-9/11 determination that a declared adversary could not be allowed to re-arm. The war resulted, she writes, “because we believed we had run out of other options.”

Rice provides some revealing details on one of the most controversial aspects of the domestic debate—the furor inflamed by the New York Times op-ed page over the “sixteen words” in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address (“The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”). Rice decided “on the spot” that the White House “should just take the issue off the table” and say it had been a mistake. Cheney was “dead set against” it, because the language had been cleared by the CIA and British intelligence stood by its claim. She ignored her own press adviser, who warned that the media would “smell blood in the water” and pounce on the administration, which is what happened. Rice writes that in retrospect “the Vice President and Anna [Perez] were absolutely right.”

Once Rice became secretary of state, she was no longer simply a broker, but a player. She knew it would mean a different relationship with the president, with much less direct access and a different institutional role, and she decided that before accepting the appointment, she needed to talk with him “as directly as we ever had.” She wanted him to confirm her primacy in foreign policy, and she raised “the one substantive issue that was on my mind.” “Mr. President,” she said, “we need to get an agreement and establish a Palestinian state.” Bush told her, “We’ll get it done.”

The story of how they failed to get it done is an important part of Rice’s book and a fair standard by which to judge her service, since she made a Palestinian state her priority. In 2001, the Bush administration inherited a new Palestinian terror war that began after the Palestinians rejected a state at Camp David. Rice writes that the conflict “dominated our security agenda” in the spring of 2001, as the administration sought to “avoid all-out conflagration in the region” and to develop a new approach to the conflict—one that “relied much more on fundamental change among Palestinians as the key to peace.”

Bush had decided the focus would henceforth not be simply on the contours of a Palestinian state but rather on, in Rice’s words, “what the nature of the Palestinian state would be.” He believed Palestinians needed to establish institutions to end terrorism, govern democratically, and act responsibly toward Israel before they would be ready for a state. Rice describes Bush as frustrated with the “indirect language” of the peace process—he wanted U.S. goals stated clearly.

That led to a 2002 speech in which Bush endorsed a Palestinian state, but conditioned U.S. support on the creation of a “practicing democracy.” Rice recounts that all hell broke loose in the Arab world after the speech, as Arab states failed to credit Bush for committing the U.S. to a Palestinian state and instead engulfed him in criticism for attaching his condition. The experience taught Rice an “important lesson”: “Whatever you do for peace in the Middle East, it is never enough for the Arab parties.”

Then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stunned Rice in 2004 by informing her he was considering a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza if he could get assurances that Israel would retain the largest West Bank settlement blocs. Rice led negotiations to provide the necessary assurances, with her deputies Stephen Hadley and Elliott Abrams going to Israel for long sessions with Sharon, leading to a 2004 Bush letter about accommodating the “already existing major Israeli population centers.” Rice spent three hours with Sharon going over the letter the night before it was issued, and she acknowledges an informal agreement to apply a “Google Earth test” for settlements: no new ones or building outward from existing ones. This effectively permitted construction within settlement blocs that Israel would keep in a peace agreement, without diminishing the land area available for a Palestinian state.

Israel thereafter withdrew from Gaza. Within 18 months, Hamas won control of the Palestinian legislature, took over Gaza in a bloody coup, and escalated its rocket war against Israel. The Palestinians had failed to dismantle terrorist groups; half the putative state was in the hands of terrorists; no institutions of democracy had been built (the Palestinian president had run essentially unopposed in 2005 in a rapid election held six weeks after Arafat’s death, and the Palestinian legislature no longer functioned).

Rice nevertheless decided this was the time for an international conference to launch final-status negotiations on the shape and size of a Palestinian state (Bush was “immediately skeptical”). She faced what she described as a “sticky sequencing problem” in the so-called Road Map to which Bush had committed the United States in his 2004 letter. As she writes:

The original Road Map had a strict three-phase structure. Political negotiations were not to begin until the third phase, when the Palestinians would, in effect, have created all their institutions and defeated the terrorists. That had been a key element in Sharon’s acceptance of the document.

Rice proposed to take the “original” Road Map and “accelerate” it. She “rearranged the sequence” to move straight to Phase III, converting what had been a principled policy into a euphemistic repetition of the past: Once again the focus was on the contours of a Palestinian state, not on the precondition Bush had set in 2002. The Road Map had not been “accelerated” but disregarded.

Rice’s summary of her efforts to convene a discussion to lay out this new approach is a small classic of unintended diplomatic humor. She thought the time was “particularly propitious” to launch negotiations on “all the big issues,” but it took a long time simply to resolve whether to call the event a “conference” or a “meeting” and to frame an invitation. Bush announced what Rice calls a “conference, meeting, whatever” without a date or location.

Then Rice found that, after years of “begging for a peace conference, the Arabs suddenly had all kinds of reservations, worries, and demands.” She had to go to the Middle East four times to urge them to participate, finding herself “flabbergasted at the seeming lack of enthusiasm.” (Three hundred pages earlier, she had described her inability to get wealthy Arab states to increase financial support for the Palestinian Authority as “my first lesson in how stingy the Arabs could be toward the Palestinian cause that they so zealously championed”).

Ten days before the “whatever” was to convene in Annapolis, “we didn’t have agreement on who would come or what the invitation would say.” She made more than 20 phone calls to Arab countries and finally persuaded them to attend last-minute negotiations. In her invitation, she referenced a statehood plan first announced by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in the august precincts of a New York Times op-ed by Thomas Friedman—without clearing it with Israel’s Ehud Olmert, who “hit the roof when he saw it.” Rice concludes her chapter on “The Road to Annapolis” with this sentence: “We were ready for the international meeting, which, by the way, had come to be called a conference after all.”

It was a triumph of indirect language: The Road Map had been “accelerated” to discuss “core issues” (the new term for “final-status issues”), which would be resolved but supposedly not “implemented” until the Palestinians met the conditions they had already demonstrated neither the will nor ability to meet. This was to be done with a kickoff meeting elevated to a “conference” to give it an unearned credibility.

Two days before the Annapolis conference convened, there was still no agreement about what the president would announce at it, and his statement was finalized only 10 minutes before it began. The reader cannot help recall one of Rice’s lessons from 400 pages earlier: “Only a fool goes to an important meeting in which the President will be involved without an agreed text.” The Annapolis statement announced that the parties had agreed to agree and had set a one-year deadline for agreement.

At the end of 2007, Rice told Bush she was looking forward to the final year to “tie up a lot of loose ends and maybe—just maybe—declare the creation of a Palestinian state.” The loose ends of Iran and North Korea never got tied up, but Rice stepped up her push for a Palestinian state, traveling to the Middle East monthly, and sometimes even more frequently. In mid-2008, she dined alone with Olmert, who presented to her a “remarkable,” “extraordinary,” “unbelievable” proposal: He would offer Abbas 94 percent of the West Bank, with land swaps for the rest, a capital in East Jerusalem, and joint control of the holy sites. He conveyed the offer personally to Abbas in September, but Abbas never returned to discuss it.

In December, Bush met with Abbas alone in the Oval Office and “appealed to him to reconsider,” but Abbas “stood firm, and the idea died.”

At the end of her book, Rice asserts that the Bush administration’s legacy will be its Freedom Agenda. She is inconsistent, however, about where a Palestinian state stood on that agenda. At one point, she writes that “the road to the Freedom Agenda went through Baghdad and Beirut” and that a Palestinian state was rather “the road to common purpose with the Arabs.” Later, she writes that as she began “very discreetly” to lay the ground for “the historic Annapolis Conference,” she felt there “could be no better accelerant for the Freedom Agenda in the Middle East than…establishing a democratic Palestine.”

It is striking that nowhere in her 766 pages does Rice mention Natan Sharansky or his 2004 book, The Case for Democracy. She and Bush both met with Sharansky to discuss the book. It warned that before elections could be meaningful, a free society required civil institutions, including an independent judiciary, free press, and loyal opposition, and cautioned against portraying Abbas as a “moderate”: “[M]oderation is not a function of a leader’s disposition or promises, but rather a function of the nature of the society he or she governs.”

As the Annapolis Process began, Sharansky predicted it would be “very unfortunate” and have “absolutely no influence” in the region, since democratic reforms in Palestinian society had not occurred and the process was based on an illusion that a “peace partner” would suffice. It was a lesson Bush had learned from the failure of the Clinton peace process, leading to the precondition he had set for a Palestinian state in 2002—and a lesson Rice ignored as she sought to accelerate the Freedom Agenda by skipping the preceding phases necessary for it to succeed. Rice concludes that “in the end, the Palestinians walked away.” The administration ended up without a Palestinian state, much less the practicing democracy that had once been the U.S. precondition for one. As Rice left office, there was an unelected Palestinian entity in the West Bank and a new tyranny in Gaza—and after three years of rocket attacks, Israel had found it necessary to go to war there against Hamas. Rice’s insistence to Bush that “we need to get an agreement and establish a Palestinian state,” with an end run around the Road Map, led to a tenure as secretary of state most remarkable for its pointlessness.

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