An article by Barrie Dunsmore in the Rutland (VT) Herald
Article published Aug 13, 2006
*An exercise in incompetence*
"In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of
incompetence." So wrote Dr. Laurence J. Peter in his 1968 book "The
Peter Principle" — a humorous look at bureaucracies and their failings.
The expression, "Peter Principle" caught on because everyone who had
ever held a job knew it contained an essential truth.
As I watched the Middle East go up in flames for the past month or more
— with U.S. policy oscillating between incredulity and ineptitude — I
couldn't escape the feeling that the Peter Principle was never more
applicable than in the case of the present secretary of state.
I don't mean to suggest that Condoleezza Rice is a dummy. She holds a
doctorate and had a distinguished academic career at Stanford
University. She served three years as a Soviet specialist on President
George H.W. Bush's National Security Council; is an accomplished concert
pianist; and is obviously elegant and articulate. But as a former
secretary of state once told me, when it comes to directing the foreign
policy of the United States, "She is way out of her depth."
As that remark was made in a private conversation I won't identify which
secretary, except to say he's a Republican and his view is shared by
others in a position to know. In his book, "Plan of Attack," Bob
Woodward wrote that a few months after the invasion of Iraq, then Deputy
Secretary of State Richard Armitage was so distressed over the way then
National Security Advisor Rice was failing in her job to coordinate the
nation's foreign policy system, that he felt compelled to tell her so —
right to her face. "The NSC system is dysfunctional, he told her
bluntly," according to Woodward's account.
Richard Clarke, the former counter-terrorism czar under both Clinton and
Bush II, wrote in his book, "Against All Enemies" that when he tried to
brief Rice on the al-Qaida threat months before 9/11, "her facial
expression gave me the impression she had never heard the term before."
Still, Rice would downgrade the position of national coordinator for
counter-terrorism and wait until Sept. 4, to convene a meeting of
Cabinet secretaries to discuss the al-Qaida threat — a meeting Clarke
had called for "urgently" on Jan. 25 and pressed for almost daily in the
summer months leading to Sept. 11, 2001.
In the recent book, "The One Percent Doctrine," author Ron Suskind
writes, "(Secretary of State Colin) Powell told Bush in a meeting that
the NSC process is broken and Dr. Rice is at the center of it. Without a
well functioning NSC apparatus, a president simply can't know what he
needs to know. Bush took it under advisement. Nothing changed."
Of course it is hard to forget Ms. Rice's reluctant appearance before
the 9/11 Commission when she testified there was "nothing about the
threat of attack in the U.S." in the presidential daily briefing of Aug.
6, only to be forced to admit under questioning, that the title of the
PDB that day was "Bin Laden Determined To Attack Inside The United States."
For me, the most telling story about Rice involves her relationship with
Retired Air Force General Brent Scowcroft — the man who had plucked her
from obscurity as a college professor and made her an analyst on the
National Security Council he headed for Bush the father. Scowcroft was
not only the elder Bush's NSC adviser but a close personal friend. For
three years he mentored Rice. More importantly, it was through Scowcroft
that she entered the Bush family inner circle. It was these contacts
that ultimately led to her joining the team of Texas Gov. Bush as he ran
for president in 2000 — and to her appointment as his NSC adviser after
the election. Under the circumstances, one would have thought that a new
adviser might have sought out the opinions, if not the advice of her
former mentor. But she did not. Rice had become part of an
administration of right-wing ideologues who looked with disdain at the
moderates of the first Bush administration, including the old man
himself. They were particularly scornful of the decision not to invade
Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War and
came into office determined to set that right — even before 9/11.
Scowcroft was opposed to a new war with Iraq but as his advice was of no
interest to Rice and her new neo-conservative friends, he went public
with his warnings in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal in August
2002. According to the New Yorker Magazine, Rice called him after his
commentary appeared, demanding, "How could you do this to us?" A
Scowcroft friend recalled, "What bothered Brent more than Condi yelling
at him was the fact that here she is, the national security advisor and
she's not interested in what a former national security advisor had to say."
The New Yorker article, published last October, was sub-titled "What
Turned Brent Scowcroft against the Bush administration?" Rejection, of
course, was one reason. These were two among many other reasons it offered.
# Rice's conversion to the worldview of George W. Bush is still a mystery,
but former colleagues on the Bush I NSC say that it is rooted in her
Christian faith, which leads her to see the world in moralistic terms,
much as her boss does.
# The split became evident at a dinner in a Georgetown restaurant in the
fall of 2002 involving Scowcroft, Rice and several people from the first
Bush administration. The conversation became heated when it turned to
plans for the invasion of Iraq. Finally Rice said with irritation, "The
world is a messy place and someone has to clean it up." Scowcroft was
struck by her "evangelical tone."
Based on her four undistinguished years directing the NSC during which
time her major accomplishment seems to have been to further ingratiate
herself with GWB, she was promoted to secretary of state. It's a measure
of how badly the war in Iraq has degraded America's position in the
world that Rice has been lauded for turning the president away from his
basic instincts to pursue a cowboy (meaning go-it-alone) foreign policy.
But the way she has handled the recent crisis in the Middle East has
demonstrated that Rice is indeed "way out of her depth." Yes, Hezbollah
is to blame for igniting the crisis. And certainly Iran and Syria, who
arm and encourage this militant Islamic movement, bear much
responsibility for the war. Israel, too, might be blamed for
miscalculating the strength of Hezbollah and taking much too long to
defeat it. But for the U.S. secretary of state, whose duty is to defend
the interests of this country through diplomatic means, blaming others
is not an option. These failures are hers:
# Going to the Middle East and talking with only one side in a war is no
way to make peace.
# Giving Israel a monthlong green light to destroy Hezbollah has resulted
in strengthening the Shia militants politically and further uniting the
Arab and Islamic worlds against both Israel and America.
# Lecturing the Syrians and Iranians on what they should do is not going
to get their cooperation. Both have legitimate reasons to believe that
"regime change" is what the United States really wants in their
countries, so what is their incentive to help end the crisis?
# Arguing that you can't negotiate with your enemies in Damascus and
Tehran because that would be interpreted as a reward for their bad
behavior is merely self-defeating. In fact, taking your adversaries'
concerns into account is a fundamental aspect of the conduct of
In my experience, no American secretary of state has been more inept at
handling a major Middle East crisis than Dr. Rice — and we haven't yet
begun to see the negative consequences that are likely to flow from this
exercise in incompetence.
Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for
ABC News now living in Charlotte.