By Steve Breyman
She couldn’t resist adding her voice to the current discussion over the Arab uprisings. As the popular revolt in Egypt drove Hosni Mubarak from power, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice lamented in a February 16 Washington Post op-ed, “It didn’t have to be this way.” The ironic thing is, she’s right about that.
When former high-level policymakers contribute to current debates over policy, a primary motivation is to show how on top of today’s issues they were when in power. Or how they saw the current problem clearly then, but their recommended course of action was overruled. Or how if the present administration would only stay the old course, all would turn out well.
For Rice, several factors (none of the above) explain her return to the fray. She has lessons to draw from her diplomatic experience. She needs to inform or remind us that she’s a fervent democrat. But, most importantly, and without saying so, Rice’s intervention is really about self-rehabilitation.
She was National Security Advisor, and then Secretary of State, when the US started two illegal wars, kidnapped and then tortured suspected terrorists, abused illegally-held detainees in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and secret hell-holes around the world, rejected the advice of old allies, ruined the country’s international standing, emptied the public coffers, and attacked civil liberties at home. She has more blood on her hands than fellow political scientists Zbigniew Brzezinski or Madeline Albright. During the postwar era, only Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger were party to more death and destruction than Rice.
She needs several rail cars to tote this baggage, so she harkens back to January and June 2005, the year Forbes called her the most powerful woman in the world. January marked President Bush’s second inaugural address; June, an address of hers to a gathering at the American University in Cairo.
The Bush speech was generally very nice (if you could overlook the glowing and thinly veiled reference to the freedom unleashed by the occupation of Iraq), hitting the high notes of human rights and liberty. It was filled with the lofty and moving rhetoric of American values and sacrifice. The speech was an absolute necessity for an administration that had just dragged the country—many of us kicking and screaming–through four years of war, hatred, and shame of its own making. It was mostly a rousing call for what US foreign policy ought to be but never was, especially through the Bush years.
Rice’s speech began with praise for the US relationship with Egypt, and its autocratic head:
“The United States values our strategic relationship . . . with Egypt. And American presidents since Ronald Reagan have benefited from the wisdom and the counsel of President Mubarak, with whom I had the pleasure of meeting earlier today.”
She also praised Egypt’s thorny relationship with its own liberal reformers, and tipped her hat to Anwar Sadat who had the good sense to make peace with Israel, and drop Arab statism for neoliberalism. She then dropped this bomb: “For 60 years . . . the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy . . . in the Middle East–and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
I’m not sure how many addresses like this Rice delivered during the second half of the Bush-Cheney era. It was the type of speech (if you excise the back slaps for the local autocrat) you want but don’t expect US Secretaries of State to give. The problem then was the problem now: freedom and democracy cannot be granted to some, but opposed for others. You can’t support them for preferred people(s), deny them to people(s) considered undeserving, and avoid hypocrisy corrosive to the values themselves.
The administration faced an excellent test of this ‘freedom agenda’ a mere six months later following parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. No people in the region had been as abused, degraded, and humiliated. No people suffered more for the right to self-determination. Here was Rice’s chance to back fine words with courageous action.
Oops, Washington, we have a problem. Hamas won 76 of 132 seats in the Legislative Council. Rice’s reaction? A political party could not “have one foot in politics and the other in terror. Our position on Hamas has therefore not changed.” How could an American Secretary of State not recognize an occupied peoples’ legally-sanctioned right to armed resistance (which does not extend to the deliberate targeting of civilians)? How could an American Secretary of State not recognize a democratic election, universally seen as free and fair, regardless of who won it?
The United States will never live up to the values and expectations of the Bush and Rice speeches until it breaks definitively with its double standards. And until it finally takes off the radioactive handcuffs of the US-Israel alliance. No critical US distance from Israel, no freedom or democracy for Palestine. Nor will we witness an end to American hypocrisy.
Rehabilitation time for Condi? Not even close. Until she comes clean about her personal responsibility for the Bush administration’s historic crimes, she should be left to languish comfortably at Stanford and the Hoover Institution. (I know, you can envision less cozy sinecures for her. Me too.)
You can do it, Prof. Rice. Start small–admit your central role in the Valerie Plame affair. You can move on to torture later. If she’s smart, she won’t wait as long as McNamara to make peace with her (and our) demons. She has demons, right?
– Steve Breyman teaches public policy to graduate students in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.