"He listened to her."
Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
April 15, 2003
Washington -- One recent afternoon, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was wrapping up a news briefing on the perilous contours of postwar Iraq as if it were child's play.
One more question, she said, relaxed and firmly in control of the room full of reporters. "I've got to catch the helicopter."
As she stepped outside, the loud engines of Marine One started up on the White House lawn, where President Bush was waiting to leave for Camp David. Not that the helicopter would have lifted off without Rice. In a time of war, in a Cabinet filled with powerful men, in a town where presidential "face- time" is the gold-standard currency, Bush has made Rice his closest, most trusted adviser.
Rice -- a former Stanford University provost and avid football fan who keeps an Oakland Raiders football helmet in her office -- is arguably the most trusted National Security Adviser in the history of the position. The broker of the war cabinet, she is the one Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney must visit to express their views with Bush.
President-elect Bush listens to Condoleezza Rice, left, after naming her to serve as his national security adviser, during a ceremony at the Governor's Mansion in Austin, Texas, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2000. Rice, 46, who served in the administration of former President George Bush, will be President-elect Bush's top foreign policy adviser. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
It was Rice -- who speaks Russian and in her studies segued from classical piano to the Soviet military -- whom Bush sent to Moscow last week to patch over relations with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
And yet unlike such storied predecessors as Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski, she so assiduously avoids being a show horse that it has become a game among Washington analysts to guess how much administration policy is being driven by her.
"Whether she influences the president, or she is carrying out the president's will, that's the question I don't think we know," said Michael McFaul, a former Stanford colleague. "But I'm struck by the fact that she doesn't want us to know that. She wants us to think of her as the president's national security adviser, and not as Condoleezza Rice, independent personality . . . and that's the way she likes it."
Despite her low-profile approach, Rice nevertheless has been mentioned as a potential political candidate in California, and some say she may consider a 2006 bid for governor.
How did this 47-year-old African American woman, raised in Alabama in a middle-class family, groomed to piano and figure skating, reach the grand master level of geopolitics?
"She's always believed that she would and should do something significant," said Gloria Duffy, head of the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, a top Defense Department official under former President Bill Clinton and a friend of Rice for 23 years from their days renting a house together at Stanford. "She's prepared herself and dedicated herself to doing that, and now she's doing it."
Describing Rice as "a strong, tough, decisive woman" who "deals with groups of people in a strong way and pushes things forward," Duffy also noted that "Condi thrives on stress. The more stress there is, the more of a challenge it is, the more she seems to thrive."
COLD WAR PERSPECTIVE
Widely referred to as Condi but addressed as Dr. Rice, she has Southern roots that reveal themselves in an unfailing, friendly courtesy. But it is her intellect that strikes people first and that fueled her extraordinarily rapid rise through the dual worlds of academics and policy-making.
"She is a very intelligent person and articulate" but also has a savvy that many smart people lack, said former Secretary of State George Shultz, a colleague of Rice at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank on the Stanford campus.
"There's knowledge that's in your head that's important, but there's also a knowledge that's in your gut and your behavior, and often it's what's in your gut that's more important, or has more to do with what you actually do and how you do," Shultz said. "And Condi has that capacity for realization to go with the intellectual capacity to grapple with the things that she is dealing with."
Critics, however, contend that Rice's academic background in the Soviet Union and Cold War Eastern Europe distort her world view and reinforce Bush's tendency to view things in simple terms.
"She was trained in the Cold War era and sees the world in a rigid bipolar perspective, which makes it difficult, I think, to see the nuances around Third World conflicts," said Stephen Zunes, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco and author of "Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East policy and the Roots of Terrorism."
"This is particularly important when you're dealing with the Middle East and what is referred to as the Arab street," Zunes said. "Defeating a nation state and a totalitarian regime like Saddam Hussein's is one thing, but the lesson out of this may be if the one regime to challenge U.S. hegemony cannot survive, then one must use irregular, asymmetrical warfare, such as terrorism, using nonstate actors."
Duffy sees Rice's experience with Eastern Europe differently, in a way that draws a direct parallel to the war in Iraq.
"It has occurred to me that Condi responds to the subjugation of the Iraqi people as she responded to the subjugation of the Eastern European people, that is, with a sense of concern and outrage about death squads and torture and suppression of people's free expression," Duffy said. "I imagine she finds that offensive in Iraq, as she found it offensive in looking at the role of the Soviet Union in repressing the Eastern European countries."
STRENGTH FROM PARENTS
Rice grew up in a middle-class home during the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Ala. At age 8 in 1963, she knew two of the four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Something in that background, friends say, nurtured the supreme self- confidence that led this young black girl to the heights of power.
Rice has said she drew her strength from her parents, who often told her as a youngster she could grow up to be president. Her family, Duffy said, "gave her a sense that she should dedicate herself to learning and studying and honing her capabilities, and then should put those to the public good and to public policy."
Rice rose through the policy-making and academic world at a breathtaking pace. She met former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft in 1984, when she was a 30-year-old junior faculty member at Stanford and he was giving a talk on arms control. She challenged him forcefully, and he adopted her as a protege. When Scowcroft joined the first Bush administration, he hired Rice to head Soviet and East European affairs during the fall of the Soviet Union.
While there, she became friendly with the president and his wife, Barbara, a rarity for her rank.
It was Shultz who coordinated the pivotal meeting in 1998 at his home near Stanford where George W. Bush and Rice first forged their bond. Bush had been making a fund-raising swing through San Francisco, and Shultz invited him to a policy discussion with various scholars, including Rice.
In what became a free-ranging four- or five-hour policy discussion, Bush and Rice hit it off, and Rice quit Stanford the next year to become the foreign policy tutor on Bush's campaign.
"She was really interesting, and you can tell when people click, and I could see they clicked. He listened to her. She challenged him. It was a good exchange, and they developed a kind of mutual respect and easy friendship and you can just see that," Shultz said.
Her deft performances in Washington, where she often articulates administration policy to the public, show an ability to juggle nuance while cutting through complexities. It was no accident that as a political science professor, she won two of Stanford's highest teaching awards.
Her job now as national security adviser: to find order in chaos, to broker competing forces, to distill what Bush needs to know to make decisions.
"She clearly is -- and is known to have been previously in her academic career -- to be a very systematic, well-prepared, incredibly well-performed and strongly analytical person," said Celeste Wallander, director of Russian and Eurasian studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "She's a very careful person who knows what she needs to know and how to go through the process of analysis and decision-making in order to do the task."
A fitness buff like her boss, and deeply religious, as he is, Rice also has an ability to speak in perfect paragraphs that acknowledge complexities but cut to the heart of matters.
Her ability to articulate complex issues was on display at her recent press conference, where she finessed a potentially explosive controversy over the role of the United Nations in postwar Iraq, while making it clear that the coalition which has "given life and blood to liberate Iraq" would not be taking orders from Security Council members who opposed it.
She found it hard to understand how the United Nations could object to the administrations's goal of having Iraqis running Iraq. "Now, I would think that something that is clearly broadly based. . . . is going to have the support of the international community," Rice said. "I don't know what other option there is to a broad-based Iraqi interim authority. And so I expect that we would have the support of the international community."
Referring again to her contention that Iraq is different from East Timor, Kosovo and Afghanistan -- all U. N. experiments in nation building -- Rice added: "When I said that this isn't East Timor, that was a new state. When I said, not Afghanistan, that was a failed state. When I said, not Kosovo, it's not a state at all. Clearly, that's not Iraq."
Ironically, Rice is coming close to the kind of nation-building she once spurned as a foreign policy realist who said the 82nd Airborne should not be chaperoning children to school in Third World countries. Like Bush, who in 2000 campaigned against nation building, Rice insisted that U.S. foreign policy must be driven by national interests, not strictly humanitarian concerns, and deal not with petty nations, but with the great powers, particularly Russia and China.
In a Foreign Affairs article in January 2000, Rice skewered the Clinton administration for shifting goals, lack of vision, lack of discipline and backing down after threatening action. She insisted that the U.S. military should not be used as "the world's '911' " to "bog soldiers down in peacekeeping roles."
Yet she also set out a bold strategic vision for the post-Cold War world that presaged Bush administration policy, insisting that "power matters."
She called Iraq the prototype of a state that has "been left by the side of the road" on history's march toward markets and democracy. "Saddam Hussein's regime is isolated, his conventional military power has been severely weakened,
his people live in poverty and terror, and he has no useful place in international politics," Rice wrote.
"He is therefore determined to develop WMD (weapons of mass destruction). Nothing will change until Saddam is gone, so the United States must mobilize whatever resources it can, including support from his opposition, to remove him."
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead