(Full disclosure: In 2007, I wrote a book that critically examined Rice’s diplomacy — too critically in the view of some of her aides. Rice never complained to me personally, but in press interviews she rejected a central premise: that the mistakes she had made as national security adviser had hamstrung her options as the nation’s chief diplomat. In her memoir, she makes one brief, but positive, mention of me.)
In many ways, this is the first serious memoir of the Bush presidency. It is long — more than 750 pages — and dispenses with the obligatory autobiographical material because Rice wrote that in last year’s “Extraordinary, Ordinary People.” Thus it is a comprehensive look at the foreign policy strategy carved out by the president and his aides, but without the usual score-setting typical of such tomes. And although Rice defends many key decisions, most especially the choice to invade Iraq, she also acknowledges the mistakes and missteps made along the way.
In public, Rice was such an articulate and fierce defender of Bush administration policies that it is striking to learn that she realized the errors were piling up. I interviewed her a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to understand why U.S. alliances were so frayed, and she insisted, even privately, that there were absolutely no problems. Now, in her book, she admits that the administration mishandled concerns about the Kyoto climate change treaty — “a self-inflicted wound that could have been avoided” — and failed to respond positively, after the Sept. 11 attacks, to NATO’s invocation of the article that it was considered an attack on all NATO states.
Rice emphasizes that the well-publicized disputes with Cheney and Rumsfeld were (in her mind) not personal, but simply business — policy differences over consequential issues. Given how roughly Cheney and Rumsfeld treated her in their accounts of the Bush years, such equanimity is remarkable.
Although Rice writes in workmanlike prose, her book comes alive when she recounts the confusion and panic in the days and weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. No matter what one thinks about the policy decisions that were made — and many would be criticized afterward — one cannot help but feel sympathy for administration officials as they grapple to find their way forward, both professionally and personally. A particularly heart-stopping moment was when, for 24 hours, the entire White House staff believed they had been exposed to a deadly toxin for which there was no reliable antidote.