Condi Rice on Trump: ‘Words Do Matter’

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In an extensive new interview for The Global Politico, the former secretary of state acknowledges her concerns about a president accused of eroding democracy at home and ignoring it abroad. She says Trump, a novice in world affairs, has a “steeper learning curve than most” presidents, and pushes him to adopt what would be a stark reversal in policy to favor the global promotion of human rights and American leadership that Rice advocated as President George W. Bush’s top foreign policy adviser.

“Words do matter,” she tells me. “I hope that we will say even more that the world is a dark place when the United States of America is not involved. It’s a dark place when we don’t stand up for those who just want to have the same basic values that we have.”

Rice has just released a new book called Democracy: Stories From the Long Road to Freedom, and the timing is such that it has been immediately greeted as “a repudiation of Trump’s America First worldview,” as the Washington Post put it in a review published just before our conversation. In the book, the former secretary—a Republican who called on Trump to drop out of the 2016 election after the “Access Hollywood” tape was released—expresses alarm about the political wave of rising populism, nativism, protectionism and isolationism that helped boost Trump’s election, calling them “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Though written before Trump’s election upset, Rice’s 500-page love letter to democracy—and the role that the U.S. should play in promoting it—reads now like a implicit rebuttal of her party’s leading man. It comes as Trump chafes against many of the American institutions that constrain his presidential powers while making a point of his admiration for international strongmen from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who will be hosted by Trump at the White House this week despite a recent referendum widely condemned as anti-democratic. There’s simply no way to read the book and Rice’s comments about it as anything other than a rejection of Trump’s approach to international relations, an emerging doctrine summed up in a controversial recent speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as one that makes a sharp distinction between American “values” and its national interests.

But Rice remains a circumspect diplomat when it comes to how she phrases her critique of Trump, who recently received her in the Oval Office to talk China policy, and Tillerson, a golfing buddy and former client whom Rice personally recommended to Trump’s team for her old post. She repeatedly says it’s “early days” when it comes to Trump’s presidency, notes encouraging signs of foreign policy flip-flops such as Trump’s missile strike in Syria to retaliate for an Assad regime chemical weapons attack on civilians, and asserts her optimistic faith that American political institutions from the courts to the media will contain Trump’s authoritarian impulses. Rice’s cautious positioning and determination to press Trump to change without publicly offending him were not surprising given her reputation as a careful inside player, but they have made for an awkward dance throughout her book tour.

She’s clearly no Trump fan but like many other once and possibly future critics of the president inside the Republican Party, she’s decided that the moment has not come for full-fledged opposition. At least not yet. And so when I ask about the president, she takes refuge instead in the Founding Fathers, the “constraints” they built into the system and the fact that countervailing institutions of the sort she is so eager to support internationally also operate as a check here at home.

“Democracy is built for disruption,” she says. “People are going to challenge the institutions, but the institutions I have absolute faith in, and whatever we’re going through now, I have tremendous faith in them and that they’re going to hold.”

***

Rice, now 62 and back to being a professor at Stanford University, had flown into the center of a Washington obsessed with the Trump saga – too much so, to her California eyes—and she seems relieved to have done most of her book-promoting before Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey last week cast a renewed scrutiny on the volatile president’s judgment. She vastly prefers the put-aside-his-rhetoric-and-Trump’s-almost-a-normal-Republican-at-least-on-foreign-policy conversation of the previous few weeks to the Russiagate frenzy, and discerns signs of Trump’s evolution to “a more strategically placed” approach than was evident during his campaign and early days of his administration.

“I think, for instance, to say to the Chinese, ‘If you don’t deal with the North Koreans, we will.’ There’s nothing wrong with that message,” Rice says. “I think to say to the Syrians, ‘We are not going to sit by and let you gas Syrian babies.’ I think there’s nothing wrong with that message. I think to say to Vladimir Putin, ‘Yes, I want to meet with you but at an appropriate time.’ I see nothing wrong with that message.”

On the day before we meet, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has gone on Fox News and promoted Rice as his candidate to be the new FBI director, touting her background as a Russia specialist who could oversee the investigation of the 2016 election hacking independently and credibly. No go, she says when I bring it up. “Anything I can do from California, I’m prepared to do. I’m a very happy professor.”

But she calls the Russia hacking something she’s “furious” about, urges the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate quickly, and advocates more forceful moves to counter Putin abroad, including arming the Ukrainian forces fighting Putin proxies in eastern Ukraine, a move not supported by either Trump or his predecessor Barack Obama.

Rice, who got her start in government as a Soviet expert on President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council staff and then served as his son’s national security adviser and State Department chief during Putin’s first years in office, advances a Putin-revenge theory of the 2016 election hacking. Putin, Rice tells me, is “kind of an eye-for-an-eye person,” and she thinks he “would have interfered because, in his view, we called his elections fraudulent in 2012, which they were. And now, he’s going to demonstrate that he can undermine our confidence in our elections.”

She calls the hacking “very objectionable”—though not the “act of war” that her onetime Bush administration rival Dick Cheney has labeled it.

“I can just imagine that in the Kremlin, there’s a lot of kind of chuckling about how much they have challenged and caused a lack of confidence in our electoral system,” she adds.

Putin comes up several times in our wide-ranging conversation, as both a case study in the limits of electoral politics and a question about what American leaders like Bush and Rice could have done differently to contain his authoritarian turn and aggression toward his neighbors. Interestingly, Rice recalls the famous moment in 2001 when Bush looked into Putin’s “soul” and judged him a fellow democrat America could do business with as a failure on her part to adequately prepare her then-boss—and she argues that Putin turned away from the West at least in part as a response to their policy of democracy promotion after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“When part of the Bush administration’s antidote to terrorism became the Freedom Agenda, now he wanted to get off that train,” she says of Putin.

It’s a question that hangs over much of our conversation: whether Rice’s (and Bush’s) particular style of promoting democracy is inextricably linked to, and tarnished by, the invasion of Iraq.

Rice brings it up herself, and it’s clear she’s still ready to litigate some old battles.

“I understand, Susan, why Americans get a bit jaded about quote ‘democracy promotion,’” Rice says. “And one thing I wanted to do with this book was to say to people, ‘Democracy promotion is not Iraq and Afghanistan, right?’ I would never have said to President Bush, ‘Let’s use American military divisions to go and delivery democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq.’ We had security problems in both of those places. Once we had overthrown the dictators—one, because they were harboring Al Qaeda, the other because we thought he had reconstituted his weapons of mass destruction and he had been a threat in the region and was still a threat in the region. Once we overthrew them, we had to have a view of what we ought to try to help bring about after. “

In her indirect way, Rice also defends where Iraq is today relative to the chaos in other parts of the Middle East. In Egypt, for example, had President Hosni Mubarak listened to her back in 2006, when she gave a famous speech in Cairo lamenting America’s historic choice in the Middle East to favor stability over freedom, she seems to say, he would not have been toppled from power a few years later in the short-lived “Arab Spring.”

Rice also draws an implicit comparison with the Obama administration’s preference for not intervening in places such as civil war-torn Syria.

“Let me just be very clear: I would rather be Iraqi than Syrian today. I would rather be Iraqi with a prime minister who might be weak but he’s accountable to the people. With 25 different newspapers and radio stations and Arab satellite available and where my government doesn’t actually use barrel bombs and chemical weapons against me. So when I hear about how poorly the Iraqis are doing, I want to say, in regards to what or in comparison to what? So you can posit that it was better for the Iraqis to continue under a dictator who was putting 300,000 people in mass graves if you want to make that case. I don’t want to make that case, and when people say, ‘Well, Iraq is such a disaster,’ I want them to explain to me why they think that under Saddam Hussein it was a bucolic, benign dictatorship.”

***

But it’s the long shadow of Donald Trump even more than Iraq that dominates our conversation.

And for Rice, it’s clear she’s not really figured out yet how to convincingly answer questions that can’t help but be painful ones for a Republican out there promoting a foreign policy of democracy promotion at a time when democracy increasingly seems under siege at home and abroad.

Rice’s caution frustrates even many of her friends and admirers. I consulted several—in both parties—before the interview and they all urged me to push her. “Add it all up and what she’s saying is powerful,” a former top adviser from her State Department days told me. “But I don’t know why she won’t add it up.” Trump and Tillerson, notes another friend, “NEVER NEVER NEVER” even mention the word “democracy”—the title of her book.

Then again, Rice’s carefully calibrated words and backstage lobbying are arguably not so different from the Republicans on Capitol Hill who have chosen to cheer any signs of Trump moderating his positions, have voted more or less consistently for his nominees and have shrugged off Trump policy pronouncements that contradict core principles of the party, from free trade to support for human rights abroad, with variations on Rice’s let’s-wait-and-see, maybe-he’ll-evolve theme.

For now, Rice makes clear she’s hoping that Trump’s national security team, with experienced military hands Jim Mattis at the Pentagon and her own friend Tillerson at State, may yet accomplish that evolution.

Rice recounts in some detail how she came to meet Tillerson when she was paired with him in a 2014 golf tournament, and decided to recommend him to Trump. She says she saw in Tillerson “a business peer” whom Trump would respect—along with the global experience of an oil-company leader. “Oilmen know the world like other people don’t know it,” says Rice, herself a former director of Chevron. “They make long-tail investments in difficult places. They have to deal with difficult people. Their workers work in hostile circumstances. It sounds a little bit like being secretary of state, and I thought really that President Trump needed a different kind of secretary of state.”

She acknowledges the criticism of Tillerson as having been too tight with the Kremlin in his role as Exxon’s chief but insists Tillerson is proving quite tough on the Russian leadership now. “I’m not sure I would have been quite brave enough going into the Kremlin to say that the Russians were either incompetent or were not telling the truth about the chemical weapons agreement with the Syrians, so good for him,” she says.

But she refuses to engage much on Tillerson’s recent speech arguing that American values must take a back seat to its national security and economic interests, and praises his job performance so far without mentioning his refusal to take U.S. media with him on his trips, cancellation of daily State Department public briefings and break with previous practice to avoid meeting with human rights activists in Russia and elsewhere.

Her answer suggests just how circular the conversation can be, though. After all, she has just said “I think we’re always better, in the long run, to remember that we are safest, most secure and most prosperous when our values and our interests are inextricably linked”—which appears to be pretty close to a direct contradiction of Tillerson’s speech.

So, I ask, does all this mean that today’s Republican Party is no longer the same party, at least on foreign policy, that it was when she was secretary and Bush was president?

“No,” she responds, “I don’t think the Republican Party is going to walk away from this and, ultimately, I don’t think the president of the United States is going to walk away from it.”

Rice’s optimism is made all the more striking by the challenges that both Trump and a worldwide turn away from democracy would seem to pose.

Not long before her book came out, Freedom House released its annual Freedom in the World Index. It showed that democracy has been on the decline worldwide for 11 straight years. A decline, in other words, that began during Rice’s tenure as secretary of state and has continued at an alarming pace ever since.

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