What I learned about Condi

Character, not ideology, is the key to understanding this remarkable politician.

A long time ago, before George W. Bush was elected, and before ‘Condi’ was an internationally recognised nickname, someone who knew Condoleezza Rice in one of her previous incarnations told me that the thing to remember about her is that she is definitely not a token, but that because people assume she is a token, they always underestimate her. A black woman Republican! From Alabama! Who speaks Russian! Of course she’s overrated, they say — until they wake up one morning and discover she’s taken their job, or been promoted over their heads, or got the President’s ear first. It’s happened over and over again on Condi’s road to where she is today — which is to say, to one of the most important jobs in the world.

Because she’s a black woman Republican from Alabama who speaks Russian, Condi is also sometimes mischaracterised as an ideologue: surely she couldn’t have got where she is, braving all that male chauvinism and all that racism, without some fervent belief in neoconservatism, or neorealism, or whatever kind of ‘ism’ is currently in vogue. But that, too, misses the point about Condi, a woman who has never adhered to any ideology in particular. In fact, the key to understanding Condi is to forget about her sex or her race (although it’s hard to do, since lately, teasing those who suspect her of having presidential aspirations, she talks a lot about her childhood in segregated Birmingham), stop trying to work out what her geopolitical orientation might be on those grounds, and stop trying to pigeonhole her. She’s a classic pragmatist, and like all pragmatists her views are, well, pragmatic. And that means that they change over time.

This point isn’t hard to prove, since Condi did us all the favour of writing for Foreign Affairs magazine, the journal of the American foreign policy establishment, right in the middle of the 2000 election campaign. Among other things she used the article (handily entitled ‘Promoting the National Interest’) to denounce the ‘nation-building’ projects of the Clinton administration. ‘The military,’ she wrote, ‘is a special instrument …It is not a civilian police force. It is not a political referee. And it is most certainly not designed to build a civilian society.’

Now listen to Condi in 2003: ‘We will help Iraqis build an Iraq that is whole, free and at peace with itself and with its neighbors; an Iraq that is disarmed of all WMD; that no longer supports or harbors terror; that respects the rights of Iraqi people and the rule of law; and that is on the path to democracy.’

To be fair to Condi, the world looked a lot different in 2000 — when she argued that the military is ‘not designed to build a civilian society’ — to how it did in 2003, when she argued that ‘we’ — largely meaning the American military — ‘will help build an Iraq that is whole, free and at peace with itself’. The world was different again last week when she told an interviewer that the Iraqis are in fact putting together a government of national unity, albeit ‘more slowly than we would hope’.

Nevertheless, if you don’t like her — and a lot of people don’t — you call this sort of change opportunistic, and when she was national security adviser, many did call her opportunistic, or worse. She was thought not up to the job of negotiating compromises between the administration’s two alpha males, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. As a result, the US wound up having policies and programmes in Iraq which were sometimes in direct conflict with one another. She was thought to be too close to her mentors in George Bush Snr’s administration, some of whom were famously fond of the status quo. She was thought too cautious, too timid, too afraid of the consequences of military action to be taken seriously.

Once again, she was underestimated. Now that she is Secretary of State — and by all accounts the President’s main foreign policy adviser, trumping not only her replacement as national security adviser but Rumsfeld himself, and obviously Powell too. What used to look like a tendency to bend whichever way the wind was blowing suddenly looks like flexibility, diplomacy and statesmanship. Since Condi took over at the State Department, relations with Europe have improved. Britain, France and Germany have been brought into the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons. The military strategy in Iraq has changed to put Iraqi police and the new Iraqi military on the front-line instead of US and British troops. Maybe not all of that was her idea, but she’s managed to get the credit, no mean feat in Washington.

Above all, Condi has now embraced the President’s democracy advocacy project. She’ll probably do a bit of that in Britain this week, since she tends to do it wherever she goes, talking about the benefits of elections and the rule of law everywhere from South America to Eastern Europe to East Asia (never forgetting to mention that childhood in segregated Birmingham). Once again, don’t make the mistake of believing she is doing so for the sake of any crusading ideology or utopianism. She has simply judged that at present the only pragmatic approach to the world, especially in the Middle East, is to talk a lot about democracy and to push it wherever possible. She has concluded that the United States has more stable relationships with countries which, as she often puts it, ‘share our values’. Hence new money for radio and television broadcasts in Iran, or friendly noises about more liberal Arab countries such as Dubai, or comments about how Indonesia could serve as a ‘model’ for other Islamic nations.
Don’t expect rigid application of principle. This is not a woman who is going to dump the Saudis because they won’t let women drive, or who will stop talking to the Russians because they nationalise a few television channels. Don’t expect she’ll necessarily keep it up either, if conditions change or if the world is altered once again by an event on the scale of 9/11. If it comes to that, this is not a woman who will be picky about who enters her coalition of the willing either. Call it hypocrisy or call it, well, pragmatism. It’s not that she doesn’t mean what she says, it’s just that she understands everything has its limits. And don’t underestimate how far it will get her.

In the end, of course, Condi insists upon absolute behavioural consistency from only one person — herself. Once, a couple of years back, Condi came to lunch at the Washington Post. What was said was off the record, but it hardly mattered; Condi, at least in my very limited experience, almost never says anything off the record that she wouldn’t say on the record anyway. In any case, what was most interesting about this particular meeting was not what she said, but the fact that while seated in a room where some 15 people were happily eating two courses plus dessert, Condi herself ate nothing at all. She swept in with her entourage, took a seat in the middle of the table, refused everything but water and answered questions for an hour. Then she got up, shook hands and swept out again.

‘Ice princess’ isn’t quite the word for this ex-figure-skating, ex-piano-playing, ex-academic star, since she’s invariably amicable, even cheerful, and always upbeat. But to ordinary mortals, that level of self-control — not even a piece of bread, for goodness sake — is intimidating. As, of course, it was intended to be.