December 27, 2000

Scoping out Condoleezza Rice

Let me get the bemusedly angry sidebar out of the way first. The most egregious offender in the media I saw was Tom Raum of the Associated Press, who began his story, "Carrying through on a promise to bring diversity to his administration, President-elect Bush on Sunday named a second black to his foreign-policy team and selected a Hispanic Texas Supreme Court justice to be chief White House counsel." Does anybody outside the tight little media-policy elite really care?

Our political system has become more race-conscious than Nazi Germany or the segregated South. Of course, this race-consciousness is supposed to be benign and constructive, always paying attention to race first because the bean-counters are supposedly fretting about ways to make more opportunities available to approved minorities. But it still amounts to judging people-or at least describing them first and foremost-on the basis of the color of their skin. In the cases of both Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, that attribute is strictly secondary.

Of course it's easier to define "diversity" on the basis of surface manifestations like race, gender or ethnic origin than on the basis of something slightly more complicated (and immensely more relevant to a political job), like political beliefs. But doing so obscures the fact that a Bush administration, regardless of how many approved minorities or women are in it, is not more likely to be genuinely diverse-especially not as diverse as the American people-than the Clinton administration was or is.


It is especially fascinating that dealers in political "diversity" want to place the heaviest emphasis on characteristics that are not only secondary in terms of what really matters about people, but over which they have no control. People choose what their ultimate values and opinions are, have some control over their choice of vocation, avocations and enthusiasms. They have no control over the ethnic group into which they are born or the color of their skin. Yet political analysts want to make such non-chosen characteristics the defining and most important characteristics.

Amartya Sen, 1998 Nobel Prize economics winner, has an interesting piece (unfortunately not available online) in the December 18 issue of The New Republic on the question of identity in a political-cultural context. He notes the phenomenon of "plural identity:" "A person can be a Nigerian, an Ibo, a British citizen, a resident of the United States, a woman, a philosopher, a vegetarian, a Christian, a painter, and a great believer in aliens who ride on UFOs," he points out, "each of these groups giving the person a particular identity that may be involved in particular contexts."

The Democrats won with Clinton and Clinton appointed their kind of people, people with different ethnic characteristics who shared a common left-to-soft-left (I know, the terms are only mildly descriptive) governing philosophy. Bush will appoint people with a right-to-soft-center-right governing philosophy. Both will appoint mostly professional people or academics with some government experience (no carpenters or plumbers of the kind who know a wrench from a ballpene hammer), which is understandable but hardly diverse as America is diverse.

I can't wait for America to get beyond race. By rights it ought to come pretty soon, inasmuch as the elite obsession with racial bean-counting coincides with increasing intermarriage that makes the matter almost impossible to judge except obsessively (think Tiger Woods). Colin Powell's skin color is lighter than mine in the summer, so who's black? But the obsession will probably outlive me.


The important question for those interested in foreign policy, of course, is not the skin color of those in positions of responsibility but their approach to international issues. In this regard Bush's appointments and his and their general approach, while hardly satisfactory to a firm advocate of American political and military non-interventionism, are mildly encouraging.

I heard one liberal professor on a radio interview saying the choices were unfortunate because Colin Powell is a career military man with no diplomatic experience and Condoleezza Rice is an expert on the old Soviet Union, which no longer exists. Those are matters worth thinking about but hardly dispositive. Colin Powell spent his career in the military at a time when political skills, if not necessarily diplomatic, were probably more important to an ambitious officer than military prowess, and he has political skills in abundance. (That's not necessarily a compliment.) Condoleezza Rice may have made her foreign-policy bones as a Soviet expert, but she is hardly uninterested in or uninformed about the rest of the world.

At least as important as knowledge or experience, however, and perhaps more so, is the general approach to foreign affairs. Gen. Powell, like many military men who know from experience who pays the price in blood for the ambitions of diplomats, seems more cautious about committing American military forces overseas than the Clinton administration, which contained virtually nobody with direct military experience besides protected military journalist Al Gore. Some even speak of a "Powell Doctrine" (remarkably similar to the old Weinberger doctrine developed by a former defense secretary whose experience was in business and finance) of using force only when there is a clear goal, popular support, an exit strategy, an overwhelming advantage in deployable forces and some definition of what "winning" might entail.

Powell fell in line, but there were reports that he was uneasy about the indiscriminate and strategically inept bombing of Kosovo. Condoleezza Rice has raised concerns among some die-hard internationalists and advocates of "collective security" (talk about being mired in the Cold War era) with her suggestion last summer that maybe it was time for Europeans to take up the "peacekeeping" mission in Kosovo, if there is to be one, reserving the American military for actual military conflicts.


During the time I spent as a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford I had the opportunity to talk with Condeleezza Rice for a couple of hours in her office when she was still Provost of Stanford University but had announced her intention to leave and advise then-candidate Bush. She is certainly charming-much more attractive in person than in photographs or on television in one man's opinion-and well informed. I couldn't help but like her.

She is not a non-interventionist by any stretch of the imagination, and it didn't take her long to figure out my questions were coming from that end of the spectrum. We were able to discuss our differences civilly, and she is fully aware that there are non-interventionists who are not knuckle-dragging isolationists, people who can hold their own with interventionists in anything remotely resembling a fair discussion or interchange.

Having noticed that most people, when they come to the Orange County Register for an editorial board meeting, figure out where we stand and try to come up with at least one or two examples of how they're for free markets too, I'm reasonably sensitive to the possibility that people tailor their answers to those who are questioning them. But Condoleeeza's responses to me that day were fairly consistent with what she has said since, in more public and more general venues.


In brief, Condoleezza Rice said she would have a higher threshold, a higher bar to jump, before recommending direct US intervention than was the case with the Clinton administration. She was a reluctant defender of the Kosovo war, noting that as she views matters the United States has a natural "security zone" or sphere-of-influence area that includes Europe and the Middle East. One wouldn't always intervene in every little dispute in that area, she said, and one would want to be sure an intervention would be effective rather than an empty gesture. But she believed that Milosevic was engaging in something close to "ethnic cleansing" against Kosovar Albanians and that the Balkans are smack in the middle of the US security zone.

At the same time, she criticized both the incremental nature of the bombing campaign and the fact that NATO and the US might learn the wrong lesson from the war that important political and diplomatic objectives can be achieved through a standoff bombing campaign from 15,000 feet. "Military conflict always entails risks, and usually bigger risks than are at first anticipated," she told me. "If we start to get the idea we can have risk-free wars whenever some foreign leader displeases us, we'll be in a lot of trouble." Her major warning was simple: "Don't let strategic air power, and especially the cruise missile, become a drug."

Condie Rice is generally associated with the "realist" school of foreign policy exemplified by Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and Paul Wolfowitz. It is a more expansive view of the proper scope of American foreign policy than mine, by a long shot. But it is potentially (it is not always easy to predict actions from first principles, especially in a complex and compromise-driven arena like foreign policy) a less expansive vision than the "humanitarian intervention" espoused by the Clinton administration or the notion of forward engagement with social or cultural problems like poverty and environmental degradation espoused by Al Gore in some interviews.

Some 18 months ago she was worrying rather actively about President Clinton bragging so openly about the fact that the United States had managed the Kosovo bombing campaign in such a way as to avoid any US casualties. "That fact is already resented in much of the rest of the world and will be resented more if we make a big deal of it," she said. She also criticized Madeleine Albright's apparent fixation with advertising the United States as the "indispensable nation," a position she took in several subsequent interviews.

If a Bush administration has a more modest view of America's role in the world than the Clinton administration did, if it is less inclined to endorse crusades and imperial meddling, that could be an improvement for those who hope for fewer wars in our future. But it would be a mistake, I suspect, to imagine that a Bush administration will seriously move toward reducing the view of the United States as a big player on the international scene.

Colin Powell may be more cautious about committing US troops overseas than some of the Clinton people were, but he has called for toughening the cruel and ineffective sanctions against Iraq. I don't anticipate a serious rethinking of the potentially disastrous US commitment to enter the Colombian civil war in the name of the drug war unless something dramatic happens early on.

The Bushies may be New World Order types with a somewhat more modest vision of where and when the United States should intervene in the rest of the world. But they will be New World Order types who might well see it as in the US interest to pick fights with Russia or China just to keep our hand in and our "influence" strong.

Text-only printable version of this article

Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the forthcoming book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column now appears every Wednesday on

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