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December 9, 2011

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Memoir shows two Rices

THEY were an unlikely pair: the cerebral A-student from a striving black family and the son of privilege who as a candidate for president couldn't name Pakistan's military ruler. But together they forged a vision of a muscular United States striking out on its own.

With "No Higher Honor," Condoleezza Rice has written an exhaustive brief to acquit herself before the bar of history, which she hopes will be more forgiving than the caustic judgments of the present. Her power stemmed from the bond that runs through her book: the close, even adulatory relationship with George W. Bush, which prompted jealousy and derision from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

Rice is terse about what drew her to Bush: "I liked him. He was funny and irreverent but serious about policy." The attraction was his moral certainty. Intellectuals may have mocked his impatience with nuance, but she saw that as standing for principle. "It was what I loved about George W. Bush as president," she writes. "What was right mattered."

Yet this very clarity and impatience set the stage for the administration's most reviled decisions, the ones she has written this book to defend. To plot a new course for a Bush presidency even before the election, she had assembled a group that called itself the Vulcans. They were drawn largely from colleagues in the previous Bush administration and had witnessed the end of the Cold War. But this eurocentric lens arguably blinded her to problems the second President Bush would have to confront, like the different dynamics of the Arab world.

The starting point for the new administration was unilateralism, and evidence for its new course came early in the first term, when the White House rejected the Kyoto environmental protocol in a way Rice acknowledges was too high-handed and combative. "Mr President," she said, "this is going to color your foreign policy from the outset, and that's a problem."

And in the urgency that followed the attacks of 9/11, the conviction that the US could not wait for slow-motion coalition-building hardened into pre-emptive action. The book's few vivid scenes are largely of those early, fearful days: Rice looking at herself in the mirror and asking what she had missed before 9/11 or waiting to see if top officials had been exposed to deadly botulism. "I was shaken to my core," she writes. The one and only time she raised her voice to Bush, she reports, is when she told him it wasn't safe to return to Washington.

Her defense of detention and interrogation is unconvincing; she does not grapple with the violations of civil liberties or the blow to American values, clinging instead to legal technicalities and the argument that the measures saved lives. Of the military tribunals, she maintains that she and other top national security officials weren't shown the order the president signed authorizing them. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled the tribunals unconstitutional.

Above all, Rice wrestles with Iraq. Stung by the charges that the administration lied about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, she says, "It is hard for many people now, knowing what subsequently occurred, to appreciate how compelling the overall intelligence case against Saddam appeared to be."

"No Higher Honor" shows us two Condoleezza Rices: one, the impatient unilateralist who was national security adviser; the other, the born-again diplomat who, as secretary of state, worked to repair some of the damage that had been done to American credibility by its unilateralism.


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