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Being Condi Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Don’t expect Condoleezza Rice to apologize for messing up on 9-11. She hasn’t apologized yet for getting it wrong on the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When the National Security Advisor takes her stand before the Independent Commission Thursday, she will bring with her into that camera-filled hearing room, her treasured reputation as a foreign policy expert to two successive Bush presidents. But Rice who claims an expertise in nothing less than the high-stakes world of global power, has failed spectacularly — not once but twice–failing to anticipate the most critical shifts of her time.

Today Dr. Rice is known as George W.’s foreign policy guru, the woman who “interprets” current events for the President. It was the same with Bush’s father. In 1989, Rice joined the first President Bush’s national security staff, becoming Director of Soviet and Eastern European Affairs. Those were heady days for US-Soviet politics. Rice traveled with the President to Poland to celebrate Polish independence and to Germany to mark the fall of the Berlin wall. She attended the Malta summit in December 1989, where Bush met for the first time with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Bush introduced Rice as the woman who “tells me everything I know about the Soviet Union.”(Gorbachev is said to have responded, “I hope she knows a lot.”)

In public, then as now, Rice was a big success, appearing on television, speaking to the press, getting written up in Cosmopolitan magazine as one of the “New Women of Washington.” Inside the White House, it was a different story. The foreign policy staff were split, and most of the men who worked with her then and now work with her again today, have good reason to remember Rice as the “expert” who was doggedly, disastrously wrong on the most important development in her area of expertise.

At issue was the U.S. relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev. In broad strokes, the President, Rice, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, James Baker (then Secretary of State) and then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell approved supporting the Soviet leader and his vision of a reformed Soviet Union. Dick Cheney (then Secretary of Defense,) Paul Wolfowitz, (his deputy) and Lewis “Scooter” Libbey (now Cheney’s Chief of Staff ) foresaw the break up of the USSR and wanted to speed it along. “Regime change” in Europe and Asia was what the Cheney crew were after — with resulting opportunities for American corporate interests if the US got in on the action early.

As it turned out, Bush and Rice prevailed. In one famous incident, Rice physically blocked the door to the Oval Office to prevent Russian leader Boris Yeltsin from meeting with the President. The Bush team were slow to grasp the scope of the changes that were seizing Europe, slow to encourage the unification of Germany, and slow to give up on the Soviet Union. A speech Bush gave with Rice’s assistance in Kiev became notorious as the “Chicken Kiev” speech because in it, the US urged the people of the Ukraine, (then clamoring for independence,) to remain loyal to Moscow. At the same time, the President balked at giving Gorbachev what he needed — either at arms talks, or in terms of foreign aid–and the Soviet leader’s domestic currency made a nose-dive. Within months, the Gorbachev era was at over. The new post-soviet Republics broke away one by one and in Russia, Yeltsin rose to power.

Cheney and Wolfowitz left the Bush administration with a silent victory–their radical world view had been right– and Rice, who claimed expertise in just this area –was wrong. Fast forward to 2000 and the almost exactly the same team are back together again. Like Powell, Rice entered the second Bush presidency with her premier quality being not her know-how but her loyalty. “Rice? She was wrong, but she was loyal, and her views didn’t seem to be too rigid,” says American Enterprise fellow Anders Aslund who spent much time on Capitol Hill in the Gorbachev years.

After she left Washington to resume her position at Stanford in March 1991, (and to take up a position on the Board of Directors of Chevron,) Rice continued her service to the Bush administration in the media, appearing on ABC’s Nightline and elsewhere defending her colleague, Robert Gates (Bush’s National Security Council Director) who was just then facing stiff grilling during his confirmation to become Director of Central Intelligence (DCI.)

Rice defended Gates, who was accused of preparing false testimony for former CIA director Bill Casey on the Iran-Contra scandal. Senator after Senator complained that Bush’s National Security team had completely missed the boat on the collapse of the USSR. Most damaging of all, the Bush NSC stood accused of skewing intelligence to mislead Congress into permitting arms sales and loans to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for two years after the gassing of the Iranians and the Kurds. Indeed under the first Bush administration, Iraq’s access to US agricultural products and biological agents including anthrax and botulinium toxins was first cut off on August 2, 1990, the day Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait.

“Gates is the best man for the job in all its dimensions and ought to be confirmed without delaya*| We could not ask for a better CIA director,” Condoleezza Rice wrote in Time Magazine in September 1991.

Thirteen years ago, Rice defended a policy that included misleading Congress into strengthening Saddam Hussein. Today she’ll defend a policy that includes manipulating Congress into invading Iraq at disasterous cost to human life, and simultaneously failing to grapple with the post-soviet terror threat.

Don’t judge Rice too harshly. The National Security Advisor’s expertise has never been in serving the nation, it has been in serving the house of Bush. At the first job, she has been a disaster. At the second, she is the best.

Adapted from BUSHWOMEN; TALES OF A CYNICAL SPECIES, published by Verso books.

LAURA FLANDERS is the host of “Your Call,” heard weekdays on public radio, KALW 91.7 fm, in San Francisco and on the internet, and the author of “BUSHWOMEN; Tales of a Cynical Species” out now, from Verso Books. For information on Laura’s national book tour, please visit www.lauraflanders.com.