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A Politician, Not a Diplomat | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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A Politician, Not a Diplomat

Two weeks before the 2004 presidential election, the Bush administration's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, made a solemn pronouncement about her desire to remain outside the political fight between Democrat John Kerry and the man who this week appointed her to serve as Secretary of State. "I think it's important that we not campaign," Rice said of national security aides. She emphasized that this was a particular concern because "we are in a time of war."

Rice made her comments during an interview with the political editor of KDKA, a Pittsburgh-based television powerhouse with a reach capable of taking her words into the homes of millions of voters in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Then, in a display of her nonpolitical approach, Rice proceeded to rip into Kerry's charge that the administration had botched the search for Osama bin Laden. Kerry's assertion "is just not true," raged Rice, before again refuting the notion that she was campaigning for Bush.

The next day, she flew to Cleveland, Ohio, the largest city in the most hotly contested of all the battleground states and trashed Kerry once more.

Two days later, she was in south Florida, one of the most hotly contested regions of another battleground state where again she dumped on Kerry's strategies for defending the United States before declaring, "The global war on terror calls us, as President Bush immediately understood, to marshall all the elements of our national power to beat terror and the ideology of hatred that protects (terrorists) and recruits others to their ranks."

During the months of September and October of 2001, Rice made no public appearances outside Washington, during September and October of 2002, she made one New York appearance, during September and October of 2003, she appeared in New York and Chicago. But as the November 2 election approached, Rice suddenly discovered the joys of Pittsburgh and Detroit. With the man who she once mistakenly referred to as "my husband" locked in a tough reelection campaign, Rice appeared during the fall of 2004 at least one time each in the battleground states of Oregon, Washington, North Carolina, Michigan and Florida, and at least twice in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Rice's travels were, for the most part, paid for by the taxpayers. And her aides insisted throughout the campaign season that, in the words of James Wilkinson, a deputy national security advisor, "Dr. Rice has continued the nonpolitical tradition of her post."

That pronouncement was so laughable, however, that the Washington Post, which did the ablest job of tracking Rice's travels in the months prior to the election, observed, "The frequency and location of her speeches differ sharply from those before this election year -- and appear to break with the long-standing precedent that the national security adviser try to avoid overt involvement in the presidential campaign. Her predecessors generally restricted themselves to an occasional speech, often in Washington, but (by late October) Rice will have made nine outside Washington since Labor Day."

The woman who claimed she could not appear before the bipartisan committee investigating the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington because it would break precedents set by past national security advisers had no qualms about breaking past precedents when it came to using her position to advance her favorite politician's interests. "I'm afraid this represents, at least in my book, excessive politicization of an office which is unusually sensitive," Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter administration's national security, said of Rice's pre-election travels. Brzezinski confirmed the Post's observation that past national security advisers had "viewed the job as not a highly political one."

Obviously, Rice had a different view. Her political campaigning was so blatant and so extensive that the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, U.S. Representative John Conyers, D-Michigan, sought a special counsel investigation of whether Rice had violated the Hatch Act's provisions against campaigning by federal employees who are on the job. "(Any) political activity on the part of the national security adviser would undermine the trust bestowed on such a non-partisan post," argued Conyers in a letter requesting the inquiry.

Of course, there was never any question that Rice was engaging in political activity. The only question was: For who? To be sure, her busy schedule in the battleground states -- which supplemented speeches with high-profile interviews with local television stations and newspapers -- helped Bush. But it also helped Rice.

After Rice appeared in that city in September, the Seattle Times newspaper pointed out that, "Rice sounded at times like a candidate." In a sense, she was. Prior to the election, Washington was abuzz with speculation about the all-but-certain departure of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the closest thing the administration had to an independent man of government -- as opposed to the programmed politicos who peopled most major posts in the Bush White House. Rice, who began campaigning for the Secretary of State post before the 2000 election, did not want there to be any doubt on the part of Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney, the man who runs foreign policy for the administration, that she would be a more loyal and dramatically more politicized player than Powell.

And so she shall be.

Rice, whose many excuses for refusing to appear before the 9/11 Commission included a claim that she was too wrapped up in the serious work of analyzing potential threats to the nation, has always been able to find time for political work on behalf of the Bush-Cheney team -- and on behalf of her own ambition. In March, at the same time that she was stonewalling the 9/11 Commission, Rice found time to deliver an extended briefing to top executives from television networks, magazines, newspapers and other media properties owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. conglomerate. Even as Spain's new prime minister was talking about withdrawing his country's troops from Iraq, and Poland's president was suggesting that he might do the same, Rice blocked out time to speak via satellite to the Murdoch lieutenants gathered at the posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Cancun, Mexico.

Certainly, her appearance helped to cement the relationship between the Bush administration and Murdoch's media empire, which includes the Fox broadcast and cable networks, the relentlessly pro-Bush New York Post and the neoconservative Weekly Standard magazine. But it also helped to position Rice as a Bush administration player who, unlike Colin Powell, recognized the need to care for friendly media.

Where Bush, Cheney and the neoconservative readers and advisers who have populated key positions inside the administration and at its edges never trusted Powell, they know they can count on Rice. Just as she politicized the national security adviser to an extent never before seen, she will politicize the State Department. Any pretense of independence or pragmatism will be discarded as quickly as was the tradition of keeping the national security adviser out of politics.

With Powell, its feeble defender, on the way out of the State Department, the last small voices of dissent within the foreign policy bureaucracy will begin to fall silent. If Rice is confirmed, as seems certain considering the partisan divide in the Senate, the Department of State where Thomas Jefferson, William Jennings Bryan and George Marshall once presided, will be little more than an arm of the White House political operation. And the Secretary of State, who has already proven herself to be more interested in campaigning than in defending the best interests of the nation or its security, will not be a diplomat. She will be a politician, nothing more and, certainly, nothing less.

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John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."

Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and by clicking here.

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