Condi Rice: Failing Upward

condoleezza rice
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This commentary from TNR was written by Lawrence F. Kaplan .

This week's creation of a White House Iraq Stabilization Group, whose function, according to President Bush, will be "to coordinate efforts, interagency efforts," was unanimously interpreted by the press as a slap at Donald Rumsfeld. And for good reason. The defense department will be ceding a measure of control to the Iraq Stabilization group, which will consist of counterterrorism, economic development, political affairs, and communications sub-groups, all run by National Security Council (NSC) officials.

Still, this hardly qualifies as a ringing endorsement of Condoleezza Rice's tenure as national security adviser. In an attempt to downplay the significance of the bureaucratic shift, Rumsfeld admonished an interviewer that the memo establishing the Iraq Stabilization Group "says the NSC is going to do that which it is chartered to do." He's right: The media's infatuation with Rice notwithstanding, the very need to restate her formal duties in an interagency memo confirms that she has failed to perform the most basic functions of a national security adviser. And that, in turn, accounts for much of why America's occupation of Iraq appears to be coming apart at the seams.

There is a backstory here. When it comes to postwar Iraq, there is enough blame, as Robert Kennedy used to say about Vietnam, to go around. Much of that blame rightly accrues to the Defense Department, which at times seems to approach the postwar as a theological exercise -- over-investing in unreliable Iraqi proxies, committing insufficient numbers of U.S. troops, and, in a reprise of Saigon's five-o'clock follies, regularly assuring us that all has gone according to plan. It has not. But the fault hardly rests with the Pentagon alone. The White House -- and, specifically, the NSC -- bears ultimate responsibility for the conduct of the war in Iraq and its aftermath. It does so because it is the responsibility of the president and his national security adviser to have the final say on matters of foreign and defense policy and, as such, to mediate the frequent disputes between State and Defense. They have done neither.

Rather than coordinate the positions of the State and Defense departments, Rice has been overpowered by them. On Iran, North Korea, the United Nations, and Iraq, the United States has not one, but two policies. As a result, issues that normally would be settled far down the bureaucratic food chain often go unresolved until they capture the attention of cabinet-rank officials in principals' meetings. And, even then, administration officials claim that Secretary of State Colin Powell and Rumsfeld routinely revert to their respective and diametrically opposed positions as soon as they walk out the door. Compounding the problem has been Rice's reluctance to delegate to NSC staff members, and her apparent inability to balance her role as the president's adviser with her role as interagency referee. No doubt, the statures of Powell and Rumsfeld make her task more difficult. And, no doubt, when it comes to the particulars of postwar Iraq, the president may not evince much in the way of firmly-held convictions. Still, Rice has been on the job for nearly three years.

The establishment of an Iraq Stabilization Group does nothing to address these fundamental problems. To begin with, the motives behind its creation -- coming as it does on the eve of a vote by Congress, whose members have demanded some evidence of competence in the management of Iraq's affairs, on Iraq funding -- are transparently political. None of this would matter if the results weren't purely cosmetic. But they are. The Iraq Stabilization Group is but the latest of dozens of Iraq "groups," each adding a new layer of bureaucracy to the thicket. True, the new organization will replace an "executive steering group" composed of assistant secretaries with a group of undersecretaries, a bona fide upgrade. But even undersecretaries do nothing without the direction of their superiors.

Indeed, so long as Rumsfeld and Powell occupy their respective posts, no amount of bureaucratic reshuffling will settle the ideological disputes that cripple the administration. Those disputes persist even today. So much so that Powell has threatened to draft reluctant foreign service officers for Iraq duty, while for their part, Defense Department officials have vowed to block certain State Department hands from serving in Iraq. The obstacles here aren't bureaucratic. They're philosophical. And we don't need a committee to resolve them. We need a national security adviser.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is a senior editor at TNR.

By Lawrence F. Kaplan