Condi Rice will deign to speak to the 9-11 Commission tomorrow. Since she may be, at this very moment, studying up in preparation for her testimony, it might behoove us to have a little review of our own.
A front page New York Times piece from the 2000 campaign provides some glimpses into characteristics relevant to an understanding of the National Security Advisor's frame of reference prior to 9/11.
Ms. Rice herself admits that there are vast swaths of the world that are new to her. "I've been pressed to understand parts of the world that have not been part of my scope," she said. "I'm really a Europeanist."
I have nothing against Europeanists. But I tend to think that when it comes to matters of national security and the coordination of policy, a self-described Europeanist might have been better suited to be head of the NSC while America was still immersed in the Cold War.
Of course, Rice is intelligent and certainly might have been expected to expand her brief beyond her European expertise. However, there is little indication, aside from the admonition of the outgoing Clinton national security apparatus, that she had any impetus to focus on security concerns outside the traditional sphere of Republican concern (i.e. missile defense, China, rogue states). And given the ABC (Anything But Clinton) directive of the newly ensconced Bush administration, is there any reason to believe that she heeded the warnings of Sandy Berger and Richard Clarke? Here again the NYT seems to have pegged the mindset of the incoming administration:
Ms. Rice and Mr. Bush seem to share a similar view of the world. It is a balance-of-power, realist Republican approach that is generally short on details and might be summed up like this: strengthen America's military, scale back military commitments abroad and focus on the big powers.
"Focus on the big powers." We'll come back to that. But first, it's worth noting the criticality of Rice's position within the Bush administration. A National Security Advisor is always important, to be sure. But
Ms. Rice's role is all the more critical because Mr. Bush doesn't like to read briefing books on the nuts-and-bolts of national security, and his lack of experience in foreign affairs has raised questions about his preparedness for the White House.
Let's remember at this point that Rice has admitted to not having read portions of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that formed the basis of the argument for war with Iraq. This seems an especially egregious oversight given that it concerned policy and intelligence in an area outside her admitted area of expertise. Doesn't one typically study more when confronted with an issue with which one is less familiar?
Maybe not. Perhaps her failure to read the NIE or to heed the advice of her predecessor stems from her preference for "winging it."
"Condi's entire life has been a high wire act," said Coit Blacker, a fellow professor at Stanford, a former Russia specialist on the Clinton administration's National Security Council and a close friend of Ms. Rice. "She can stand up in front of a crowd and wing it. I have been with her any number of times when she's about to give a speech and she writes it on the back of an envelope on the drive over. It springs from deep confidence but also a tendency to engage in death-defying acts."
So here we have a supremely self-confident "Europeanist" with a penchant for "winging it" ostensibly in charge of the coordination, direction, and articulation of America's national security policy. Was she "winging it" on the Niger yellowcake issue leading up to last year's State of the Union? In that episode it is almost undeniable that she either made public claims she knew to be false or she was asleep at the wheel in her important role of intelligence gathering and oversight.
Again, I don't dislike people who like to play daredevil any more than I dislike Europeanists. But I'd prefer that public servants undertake recklessly bold maneuvers on their own time.
I also appreciate it when people have enough of a sense of themselves to admit their own limitations. Rice strikes me as too cocksure to be such a person.
Of course, Afghanistan is also not Ms. Rice's primary area of expertise. Asked in an interview to support her assertion in her recent article in Foreign Affairs that Iran is trying to spread "fundamentalist Islam" beyond its borders, she replied, "Iran has been the state hub for technology and money and lots of other goodies to radical fundamentalist groups, some will say as far-reaching as the Taliban."
When reminded that Iran was a bitter enemy of the Taliban and that the two countries had almost gone to war in late 1998, she replied, "They were sending stuff to the region that fell into the hands of bad players in Afghanistan and Pakistan." She did not identify "the bad players." (In a subsequent conversation, she said that of course she knew that Iran and the Taliban were enemies).
I can just image Rice showing up for work at the White House 6 months after this interview. One of her new underlings tells her that she really needs to be focusing on this al Qaeda thing. Is that related to that Taliban thing I recall from the campaign, she wonders? Oh, al Qaeda? They must be some of those "bad players." Yeah, yeah, we'll get to that...
It is not at all difficult to believe that Rice (and the man she tutored) would be less than whole-heartedly interested in topics outside her (their) bailiwick.
It is plainly obvious, however, how interested they were in what Josh Marshall calls their "fundamentally flawed conception of the threats facing the United States."
Transnational terrorist groups were almost off the radar. The real near-term threats were rogue states which could hit the US with WMD-bearing ICBMs -- longer-term the threat was China. And thus the centerpiece of our new national security strategy -- and the target of the biggest funding -- would be national missile defense.
Now in a front page piece in Thursday's Washington Post we learn that on September 11th, 2001 Condi Rice was scheduled to deliver a major foreign policy address on missile defense as the centerpiece of a new strategy to combat "the threats and problems of today and the day after, not the world of yesterday."
How rich is the irony of a Europeanist slated to deliver a speech on missile defense -- missile defense -- on the day our country is brutally attacked by human piloted missiles? "World of yesterday" indeed.