Monday, November 22, 2004
II. THE WATCHER
As mentioned in my earlier post, I suspect that President-elect George W. Bush conducted a series of consultations with his father as to the makeup of the cabinet. In December of 2000, Bush took a vacation down near Naples, Florida (the family owns an estate near Cape Coral, I believe) where he probably sat down with Bush the Elder and discussed pending appointments. I'm quite sure that George H. W. Bush placed an emphasis on an assertive national security advisor who would cull the herd and get rid of the chaff that would come in from State and the Pentagon. That's how Kissinger dominated Nixon's foreign policy shop; that's how Brezinzki neutered State's Cyrus Vance in the Carter years. Later, an operator like Brent Scowcroft achieved a smoothly operating Bush policy shop by knocking heads together. Working for Scowcroft was a young Condoleezza Rice, who acted as the elder Bush's Soviet analyst. All of the men mentioned were brutal realists of the Metternich/Morgenthau Akademie of foreign affairs. For instance, in the wake of the T'ien an Mien Square massacre, Brent Scowcroft showed up on Deng Xiaoping's doorstep to assure him that business would be conducted as usual. Rice was a disciple of that school, although she would adjust her views to the new environment of protracted ideological struggle in later years.
Now then, both the Elder Bush and his son had to know that the W was determined to pick Condoleezza Rice as his DNSC. As mentioned earlier, Rice had no retinue of supporters, no network of sympathetic media people who would leak damaging information on a rival for her. So, what to do with a woman of immense drive, focus, and intellect, but limited powers? The answer to that lies in the fact that this national security advisor had a constituency that no one counted on-a constituency of one: the President.
I think both men decided that Condi would become the President's eyes and ears in the Principal's Committee. She could not, from the beginning, even hope to push around people like Rummy and Dick Cheney. In early January of 2001, Rice was alarmed when stories hit the Washington Post that Cheney's people intended to have the Vice-President chair the Principal's Committee. They were peddling damaging quotes about Rice, indicating that she was not highly thought of among the Players and was simply a hanger-on from the Campaign. Rice went to the President-elect and sought out a commitment that she would chair the Committee, a seat that normally went to a DNSC. Bush saw, correctly in my opinion, that Cheney was trying to grab the reins and issued a Presidential Directive that placed his National Security Advisor as permanent chair of the Principal's Committee.
As Greg Djerejian has made clear, Condi's management of interagency policy formulation left something to be desired. This reaction is understandable, if one believes that Bush intended to follow the Scowcroft template. My thinking is that the President never intended for her to have that kind of power, but to be his silent advocate. Bush subscribed to a chaos theory, in which Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet, and Cheney fought things out. Rice would pull together everybody's thoughts (although I strongly suspect she was far more assertive than many foreign policy heads believe) and submit everyone's proposals to the President. This was a hugely messy process, in which the Principals fought policy battles both within and without the Committee. If one didn't like what was going on, one could always call Bob Woodward, drop a line to Dana Milbank, or watch the fun when the Washington Times ran a Page One Bill Gertz story based on one's own leak. Bush knew this was going to happen, and understood that it was the price he had to pay for getting talent like Rumsfeld and Powell on board. His father's administration leaked like a sieve, as Cheney, then SECSTATE James A. Baker III, and Scowcroft fought their battles in the Press. What is key here, and few people out in the blogosphere appear to get this, is what happened next. Bush asked Rice what she thought and asked for her recommendation. And Rice never breathed a word to the Press about what she said to the President. The President's trust was her sword, and her silence was her shield.
She became the President's advocate on the Sunday talk ghetto, and I am convinced, within the Principal's Committee, as well. The woman who began almost every sentance with "This President believes...." said so with sincerity, as it was what they agreed that the policy should be once the savage disputes from the chaotic Bush policy process had been settled by the President.
She was the last person who talked with George W. Bush on any foreign or military question, and on some domestic questions as well (you will all recall that she got heavily involved in George W. Bush's consideration of the University of Michigan's Affirmative Action arguments before the Supreme Court). And it should be noted that she has almost never been on the losing end of a foreign policy fight. She argued for the invasion of Afghanistan, for Powell's approach to the U.N., and for the invasion of Iraq.
To be clear, she has had failures. Her one great failure, in my opinion, is the fact that the Iraq reconstruction portfolio dropped in her hands in October of 2003, but the rest of the Administration appeared to ignore her authority. A lot of this I blame on Bush, who didn't back her authority as much as he should have. A PDM or a Finding would have been a real help in this regard, but in the absence of a firm hand from the Oval Office, Iraq reconstruction authority had meandered about, with a lot of it moving to State (Speaking of the lack of a firm hand, please read Greg's latest post on the Administration's laughable policy on troop levels In Country. The whole thing, please. Rumsfeld's foolish decision not to increase Army end strength by several rifle divisions back in 2001 is coming back to haunt us. But at least Rummy killed the Crusader...). By January of 2004, the corrosive effect of the Presidential campaign was felt, followed in train by the Abu Ghraib scandal and the jihadist Spring offensive. Of necessity, a lot of authority transferred back to the Pentagon. Enough reconstruction authority has remained with State for this to pay dividends for Condi as she takes her new job. However, it remains a fact that while at NSC, she was never able to truly dominate Iraq occupation policy. I will turn to Condoleezza in Iraq in a later post.
There were some other rather minor contrived contretemps. First, the "Sixteen Words" affair turned out to have been a huge propaganda mistake by the Bush communications team. In his 2003 SOTU speech, George W. Bush stated that British intelligence believed that the Moustache had sent his people to Africa to buy Uranium Oxide ("yellowcake") for processing into weapons grade material. The British did believe that. They never backed down. Rice backed down because she lost sight of the central fact of the case: that Tony Blair had evidence that the Mukhabarat had been sent to Africa. The President never mentioned Niger in his speech. He also didn't mention Joe Wilson, and neither should anyone else by the way. Rice should never have ceded this point to the President's critics. That was a mistake. She gave a propaganda gift to the President's opponents that turned into a meme that lasted throughout the campaign.
As the campaign year wore on, Bush began to consider what a Second Term would bring. He knew that he was probably going to win, and that would bring with it changes in personnel and policy. The runup to that, and Rice's place in it all, in my next post.