Thursday, January 18, 2007

How I Fell Out of Love With Condi

When she sat down at the piano, people said . . .
Once upon a time, I liked Condoleezza Rice a lot. I daresay I might even have had a bit of a crush on her.

Rice was a fresh face in the white male Washington policy-making establishment. Her credentials were impeccable, and she was one of the few people among President Bush's inner circle who didn't seem to have become totally snoggered on the neocon Kool Aid.

That Rice's favorite song was Mozart's "Piano Concerto in D Minor" was a bonus, and I liked calling her "Condi." This was a nice nickname that headline writers immediately took to, and she didn't seem to object that I liked it. At least she never said so. By comparison, I couldn't image calling Paul Wolfowitz "Wolfie," and I knew that he would mind if I did.

In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, I was somewhat perturbed when Rice . . . er, Condi admitted that she was still fighting the Cold War and had not given much thought to the War on Terror.

But I knew that she was one smart cookie, would learn on the run and adapt to the new realities. I even felt a little wounded by the slings and arrows of the know-it-all pundits who called her a lightweight. I had realized at that point that she didn't know me from Mullah Omar, even though my beard is shorter than his and I don't wear a headscarf, but I still felt like I should stick up for her.
Well, the pundits were right.

After observing and reading about Condi for over five years now, first as the president's national security advisor and then as secretary of state, I sadly conclude that her legacy will be . . . Well, I have no idea what it will be, except that it won't be good, especially when compared to her predecessors, Colin "Torn Between Loyalties" Powell and Madeline "I Tell It Like It Is" Albright, both of whom I was very fond of but most certainly did not have crushes on.

Alas, Condi is a portfolio without a woman. (Her gender doesn't matter, mind you. If she wore pants she'd be a portfolio without a man.)
I came to this heart-wrenching conclusion during Condi's wheel-spinning tour of Middle East capitals during the Israel-Hezbollah dust-up last year. Nothing has changed my mind since. To make matters worse, a story broke about her sitdown with high-ranking intelligence officials at the White House in July 2001 and how they sounded the alarm over Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda and that Omar guy and the grave threat they represented to the homeland.

Condi, who probably remembers every musical ensemble in which she has tickled the ivories and the color and location of every pair of Ferragamos in her wardrobe, remembers nada. Not the meeting. Not blowing off George Tenet and J. Coffer Black. Not their man-the-barricades warning.

Still, I couldn't figure out exactly what it was about Condi that didn't add up. I wanted to call her and ask what the heck was going on behind that toothy smile, but I knew that I wouldn't be able to get past the switchboard.
Then one day I finally figured it out.
I assist scholars who visit a rare book and manuscript library. They're a diverse bunch, from a Welshman researching a paper on the alcoholism of poet-writer Dylan Thomas for a medical journal to an academic from California who is writing a book on the theorems of Thomas Harriot, the great early 17th century British astronomer-mathematician. (Pretty wild stuff, eh?)

After a while, no matter who they are, the personalities of these brainiacs emerge. The Welshman turned out to be an extraordinary wag, the academic in possession of the driest sense of humor this side of the Thames.

Well, make that almost invariably. There is one kind of scholar whom no matter how long their visit or how many opportunities we have to interact, have a sort of differentiation deficit syndrome: They approach everything, from the most banal to the most complex, the same way.

Now I'm a little weak on this stuff because I'm not a psychiatrist (and I didn't stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night). But when I take the long view of Condi's tenure in Washington, it is obvious that she approaches her job the same way, whether it's showing off that nifty new carpet in her office or answering questions about genocide in Darfur.
Maybe Condi goes home and belts out an arpeggio or two on the old Steinway or has a boo-boo on her housekeeper's shoulder after a long and frustrating day of trying to make the world safe for democracy. Maybe she feels a secret shame for her part in the collapse of American foreign policy and the enmity that most of America's allies feel toward Washington because of her actions (no, the French don't count) and those of her boss.

"Stuff happens," as a former defense secretary remarked in the days after the Iraq invasion when the first signs of the chaos to come emerged.

I suspect that is exactly Condi's approach. It's all stuff. And it shows.

Or maybe I just feel jilted.
Photography by Stephen Crowley / The New York Times


Kenneth Almquist said...

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, I would think that most people holding the post of National Security Advisor would have thought, "Hmmm. Our military headquarters has come under attack, as has America's largest city. This isn't just another of those petty annoyances that snarls traffic in Washington, D.C. and causes the networks to preempt my favorite television show. This is actually relevant to my job! I guess I should start reading the news stories which deal with Islamic terrorism. In fact, I should even look into whether we can predict and prevent the next attack."

Eight months after 9/11, Condi made her infamous statement about not being able to predict that terrorists would fly airplanes into buildings. Did she know about the foiled plot to fly an airplane into the Eiffel Tower? No. Either she didn't read the New York Times, or she decided to skip the articles on Islamic terrorism. She didn't know about the any of the information we had that indicated that flying airplanes into buildings was one technique that Islamic terrorists were considering.

I don't really blame Condi for not taking Islamic terrorism seriously before 9/11, but 9/11 should have been a wakeup call. She should have been asking questions like, "What information did we have before 9/11 that would have alerted us to the danger if we had recognized its significance? If there were any clues, we should learn from them so that we can act on those sort of clues in the future. What sort of attacks is al Qaeda likely to launch in the future? If al Qaeda has been playing with the idea of flying airplanes into buildings for a long time, then it makes sense to spend a lot of money upgrading airline security. On the other hand, if this particular approach is a one-off and al Qaeda will use a different sort of attack next time, then improving airline security is a wasted effort. Which is it?"

But apparently Condi believes that the threat to national security posed by Islamic terrorists falls outside her job description.

Anonymous said...

As far as I'm concerned, Richard Clarke had warned all of these people about 9/11, including Condi, but he was ignored because he had committed the unpardonable offense of serving during the Clinton administration.

But of course, Condi has had no trouble demonizing when it has suited her puposes (the whole "mushroom cloud over New York City" thing).

And I never took her whole "angry black dominatrix" thing seriously anyway.