Political transitions tend to focus on those newly elected and appointed but such periods also present us with an opportunity to sum up the accomplishments of those who are leaving government. Senior officials want to take advantage of the media's attention while it is still focused on them and everyone has a natural desire to try and shape what is written and broadcast about their time in office.
Thus, like her boss, President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is granting more than two dozen so-called "legacy" or "exit" interviews as she prepares to leave Washington and return to Stanford University. Among the traits both Mr. Bush and Dr. Rice share is a tendency to see the glass half full, to dwell on the positive which is clearly evident in the interviews.
"I'm so gratified that we are leaving a much better situation on Israeli-Palestinian issues than we found," Rice said in her interview with CBS Radio News. Talking to the Associated Press about the war in Iraq, Rice started a very long answer with a reference to the ouster of Saddam Hussein: "The removal of a tyrant is a pretty big thing."
These are rhetorical tactics and many people in high office resort to them but left unchallenged they obscure another side, namely that they've left behind a glass half empty.
Yes, Israelis and Palestinians are negotiating the serious issues and they've made some progress but even with Rice's mediation efforts, they failed to reach a peace agreement by the end of 2008. That was the stated goal which Mr. Bush announced at the Annapolis Peace Conference held in November, 2007. Certainly Saddam's removal from power was important but was it worth more than 4,000 American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars to bring a budding democracy to Iraq?
The real foreign policy of the Bush administration began on September 12, 2001 and whatever the administration accomplished or failed to accomplish has to be seen through the lens of the events of 9/11. Rice said: "It changed the way we view foreign policy. It changed the way we viewed failing states, that the greatest threats came from failed states, not from powerful nations."
The subsequent invasion of Iraq including later abuses at the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prison camps contributed to spoiling almost all other significant policy initiatives for the Bush administration, something the invasion of Afghanistan alone would not have done. The declaration that Iran and North Korea - along with Iraq at the time - constituted an "axis of evil" didn't help later diplomatic efforts and the same can be said for starting out with a mindset that policies had to be "anything but Clinton's."
Rice has spent the past four years as Secretary of State and before that in the first Bush term she was Mr. Bush's national security advisor and head of the National Security Council. In these posts Rice has played a major role in decisions related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as those dealing with events in Russia, Iran, North Korea and the Middle East peace process.
As America's top diplomat Rice recognized changes in the world and instituted reforms inside the Foreign Service, sending more diplomats to posts in India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Nigeria and fewer to cushy jobs in Paris and Rome and Berlin. Rice was able to get enough money from Congress to add more diplomatic personnel and she has her supporters in the career ranks. At his retirement ceremony, outgoing Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs C. David Welch said of Rice: "…you have shown unparalleled respect for the career service, and that will be hard to match. Even in tough moments…you were positive. You have strength and confidence that are inspiring." Others, however, compare Rice to her predecessor, Colin Powell, and find her lacking when it comes to supporting their professional needs.
Rice traveled more than any of her predecessors. The State Department Web site notes 83 countries visited during 80 trips and more than a million miles logged on her diplomatic ventures. Rice met with traditional allies and even onetime foes - she was the first secretary of state to visit Libya in more than 50 years - and she tackled new issues, primarily launching an extensive Bush administration initiative to spread democracy, an effort aimed especially at the moderate Arab states of the Middle East. Rice thinks the travel is "critical for this job" but her trademark style of going from one high profile meeting to another has not kept critics of her diplomatic style from speaking out.
Someone who has watched her closely called her "the photo-op secretary of state who chased illusions and worked hard at it." This person, who asked not to be identified, said "ninety percent of her events don't produce anything." The official was referring to Rice's efforts regarding Iran, North Korea and the Middle East peace process. That may be a particularly harsh view but others asked to sum up Rice's tenure were not overly kind.
A senior foreign policy analyst who has known Rice for many years and who thought she would be really good in this job, is disappointed. "There is no purposefulness to her efforts. There is no follow up," he says. "She is very talented, highly driven, but there is no follow through." Rice and her supporters of course disagree with such assessments.
The critics aside, Rice can take credit for a number of policy successes. Full diplomatic relations have been restored with Libya on her watch and Israelis and Palestinians began regular high level negotiations addressing core issues like borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem and although no deal was finalized both sides acknowledge substantial progress has been made.
After isolating North Korea in their first term and naming Pyongyang a member of the "axis of evil," Rice persuaded Mr. Bush to reverse course and engage in negotiations with North Korea through the so-called Six Party Process. During the past two years of intense and often frustrating negotiations led by Ambassador Christopher Hill, North Korea, in return for economic benefits and being taken off of Washington's state sponsor of terrorism list, actually agreed to disable its nuclear program and took several major steps in doing so. "I think that moving them from an American problem to something the international community agrees on how to solve it is a very important step," Rice said, again seeing a glass half full as she leaves office although the final outcome still in doubt.
Democracy promotion was a mixed bag. Yes, Afghanistan and Iraq held multiple elections using democratic procedures which were a new governing concept for both nations. While in each case it took American military action to create the atmosphere which made those elections possible, it remains a notable achievement that democracy has gained at the least a foothold in those countries. In places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia the push for democracy and openness had less of an impact.
In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration spent some ten billion dollars on Pakistan and backed its strongman leader, Pervez Musharraf. Now, he has been voted out of office, elements of al Qaeda and the Taliban still have virtually free movement in the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan and Pakistan's new government may not be politically strong enough to confront the terrorists who are a threat to tem as much as to those outside Pakistan's borders.
Iran has completely confounded the Bush team at every turn. Whether it was Tehran's meddling in Iraq, its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas or, most especially, its pursuit of nuclear weapons capability, Secretary Rice was not able to make any significant headway to stop or even reduce Iran's ability to pursue its stated policies. The administration's steadfast refusal to engage in one-on-one negotiations with Iranian officials was a policy based on principle but it ignored an evident reality: Tehran was not going to make any deals by talking to Europeans who were speaking on Washington's behalf. Even with a handful of U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions hanging over their heads along with internationally imposed financial sanctions, Tehran's leaders stayed on course. Only in the closing months of the administration did Rice make the minor concession of allowing a senior American official, Under Secretary William Burns, to participate in a meeting and sit at the same negotiating table with our European allies and an Iranian official.
As far as we know, there was no diplomatic overture at a higher level with Tehran or any back channel negotiating track. Iran remains among the most pressing diplomatic problems for the Obama administration to grapple with because it is much closer now to nuclear weapons capability than it was 8 years ago.
Rice leaves office knowing all too well there are limits to America's power. Washington was powerless to stop Russia's military moves against Georgia earlier this year. The core of Rice's foreign policy background is her expertise on the former Soviet Union. However, as Russia took steps to regain its role as a world power - on Georgia, Iran and other issues - Rice was largely ineffective in her efforts to dissuade Moscow from pursuing a course which was at odds with Washington. One State Department official put it this way: "On Russia, where's the added value? I don't see it."
Condoleezza Rice's biggest asset as secretary of state was a very close working relationship with her boss and that allowed her to make significant adjustments in some policies, most notably showing flexibility in dealing with North Korea. Rice was clearly a stronger advocate in internal foreign policy debates as secretary of state than she was as national security advisor.
Rice leaves Washington having learned many lessons she'll clearly be able to pass on to future students, among them that there are limits to America's power. "And if I have a real disappointment about this period, it's about- it's about Darfur and Zimbabwe and Burma, because these are tyrannical regimes," she told CBS Radio News. "But the international community's unwillingness to do these hard things sometimes, to insist, yes, that's a disappointment. And the United States can't do it alone."
Finally, another lesson learned. "The United States should never seek popularity. It should seek respect," Rice noted. "It should seek a reputation for standing for the right values. And sometimes - and by the way, it's often been the case, not just with the Bush administration - that will lead people to criticize us." The President and his Secretary of State will leave town with the full knowledge the criticism which they have been dealing with while in office will continue and likely intensify as they each move to write their own accounts of post-9/11 America.
It will be decades before we know whether democracy took firm root in the heart of the Arab middle east, whether the Bush administration's global war on terrorism was the proper response to the events of 9/11and whether the Annapolis process finally launched Israelis and Palestinians on a final path towards peace. George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice and their critics will all await the judgment of history.