Condoleezza Rice is a remarkably assured person. Although her beginnings were modest hers was not a rags to riches story. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but as a teenager moved to Denver, Colorado, where her father, who was a Presbyterian minister, served as an assistant dean at the University of Denver. She considered a career as a concert pianist but switched to international relations and developed an interest in politics. In 1982 she left the Democratic Party and registered as a Republican partly because she disagreed with Jimmy Carter's foreign policy and also because it was the Republicans who registered her father to vote during the segregation era when the Democrats refused to do so. Although Rice was expected to be appointed National Security Advisor by George W Bush in 2001 she felt unable to leave her father who lived in California and was in bad health. Bush, who appears throughout the book as more sensitive than his public image, was prepared to accommodate Rice to make things work. Her father's death on Christmas Eve 2000 solved the problem.
Rice highlights the tensions which exist between the President, Secretary of State and the Department of State which regards politicans as transient and itself as permanent. Rice saw her role as achieving consensus in the National Security Council (NSC), a role Bush encouraged. She writes, "George W Bush had no trouble making decisions when the search for consensus failed." Rice and Bush were close enough for her to tell him when she felt she was being treated in an off-hand manner. On 9/11 she firmly told Bush, who wanted to return to Washington, he must not do so. When he did return Rice noted "he was absolutely in control and showing no strain whatsoever." When offered a bed in the White House bunker Bush calmly refused and took his family upstairs to their regular quarters.
9/11 defined Bush's policy towards Afghanistan and Iraq although Rice was adament that 9/11 was not reason for the removal of Saddam Hussein. It was Saddam's contribution to instability in the Middle East which led Bush to support regime change, a policy which had been approved by the House of Representatives by 417-5 in 1998 during Clinton's presidency. Rice states the invasion of Iraq took place because all other options had failed. Bush did not want to go to war and there was no policy of bringing democracy to Iraq. In the aftermath of war Rice supported torture as a means of extracting information from captured terrorists which she justified in the context in which it took place, including fear of further attacks. She places the responsibility on the CIA who said the torture techniques were necessary and the Justice Department who reported they were legal. She denies she was aware of the dubious nature of the intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and rejects claims the war was oversold.
Other problems arose from 9/11 and the war in Iraq. 9/11 occurred on Rice's watch and she felt obliged to give evidence to the 9/11 Commission rather than plead executive privilege. She told the Commission that too many officials were in charge of too little information which was uncoordinated. She advocated an integration of foreign and domestic terrorist intelligence to avoid a repetition. In Iraq, America's reputation was severely damaged by prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib. Rice states, "those heinous acts of abuse were committed by a small number of personnel acting in defiance of their orders." Her assertion is not accepted by those found guilty of the crimes who claim there were verbal orders to apply psychological pressure. Unknown to Rice, Donald Rumsfeld offered to resign over the issue but Bush refused to accept it. Abu Ghraib raised questions about prisoners held at Guantanamo. Rice reviewed the case of an Afghan man who she reckoned was about 93 and presented no danger to the United States. It took a long time for other cases to be reviewed.
When she was appointed Secretary of State in 2005 Rice endorsed a policy of spreading freedom by way of democracy. Her argument was democracies did not declare war on each other unlike authoritarian regimes. Dissenting Arab intellectuals were concerned about the negative effect such regimes had on the development of knowledge and education, female empowerment and freedom. She asserted "only the emergence of democratic institutions and practices could defeat terrorism and radical political Islam." She didn't find much support from European allies most of whom thought her approach was too simplistic. Bush, who had no time for the indirect language of the Middle East peace process, called for the establishment of a Palestinian state, despite Israeli opposition. Rice took this further, confronting the ideology of anti-Americanism and taking the message of the need for democratic change to governments. Those beyond the pale - Burma, Belarus, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe - were long term projects.
The fact that two of Bush's top advisers, Powell and Rice, were black is remarkable. The pair succeeded not because they were black but because they had and used their undoubted talents to the best of their abilities. Yet only fifty years previously black people were subject to segregation, often unable to register to vote and regarded as inferior by many whites. Texas was part of the segregated South but it was Lyndon Johnson who had signed the Civil Rights Bill and another Texan, George W Bush, who entrusted Rice with high office. Seeing her in person arguing a case quickly brings home the tenacity with which she fights her corner. She struck a chord with Bush but annoyed people like Rumsfeld and Cheyney. This autobiography is a good addition to an understanding of American politics but is probably best used for reference rather than cover to cover reading. Self-serving? Possibly. Worth reading? Definitely. Five stars, just about.