The FP Interview: Condoleezza Rice on Obama, “Leading from Behind,” Iraq, and More

The former secretary of state dishes on what the current administration gets right -- and what it gets wrong.

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 15: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks about her new book, "Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family," during the Newsmakers luncheon at the National Press Club October 15, 2010 in Washington, DC. The book is about Rice's family and growing up in racially-segregated Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1950s and 60s. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat down for an extensive interview with Foreign Policy as part of the rollout of her new book, No Higher Honor. Rice criticized the notion of "leading from behind"; called for a return to a focus on human rights in foreign policy; lamented the downfall of democracy in Russia, calling Putin’s likely return to power a "terrible turn of events"; and contended that George W. Bush’s administration, despite avowals by the current White House to the contrary, had always intended to negotiate an extension to the agreement that required all U.S. troops to exit Iraq by the end of this year.

On the contentious subject of Middle East peace, Rice fully endorsed the U.S. decision to withdraw from any U.N. organization that grants full membership to the Palestinians, as UNESCO did this week. "If the U.N. wants to go down this road, let them see how well they do without U.S. support," she said. Rice also said that by initially pressuring the Israeli government to accept a settlement freeze, Barack Obama’s administration had "put the Palestinians in a position of having to be less Palestinian than the United States," forcing them to adopt more extensive demands.

The edited transcript follows:

Foreign Policy: The terminology that many people use to describe the Obama administration’s foreign policy is this phrase, "leading from behind," which is now confirmed to have come from a White House official. Does that accurately portray the Obama administration’s foreign policy?

Condoleezza Rice: I sincerely hope not, because it’s an oxymoron. I never understood the notion of "leading from behind." If you mean leading in concert with others, that’s one thing, and America has a long history of having allies. But without having American leadership, it’s very rare that difficult things get done. I fully understand the pressures, and indeed the attractiveness, of dealing with our internal issues — whether it’s the budget deficit, entitlements, or K-12 education, or immigration. And I understand why Americans are feeling a bit weary of the world. And I’m a big believer that until we do that internal repair, it’s actually going to be difficult for us to lead.

But we don’t actually have an option to sit on the sidelines. That will either provoke chaos, or maybe somebody else will try to lead who doesn’t share our commitment to the balance of power that favors freedom, and that would be bad for our interests, not to mention our values.

FP: Do you see the Libya intervention as an example of this "leading from behind" philosophy?

CR: Leaving aside the phrase, which I really just do find to be an oxymoron, I would just say that there’s nothing wrong with the British and the French taking a strong role, or even the lead role, in doing something in a part of the world where the Europeans have great interests. But what was demonstrated actually there [in Libya] was that they very much needed strong American involvement.

When you talk about NATO, most of the military capability in NATO belongs to the United States. When the United States recognized the transitional national government, I think that made a big difference in their legitimacy worldwide. The United States may indeed see circumstances where it’s fine for Europe to be ahead in the lead, but it doesn’t mean that the United States can abdicate responsibility, because it’s the strongest power in the international system.

FP: Some say that throughout the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has been more reactive than strategic and has been caught off guard in their various responses to the situations in Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc. What do you think that says about their national security policy process?

CR: Well, I do think the administration has been caught off guard by the Arab Spring and a little bit slow to respond, as I think was the case with the Iranian events in 2009. But they’ve gotten to the right place, and I know how hard it is when you’re in government to see all these events when they’re coming at you.

What’s very often not understood is that you have to be very clear on what the principle is, and the principle ought to be that no man, woman, or child should live in tyranny. But you’re going to have different responses to different circumstances. You’re not going to treat states with which you have relationships and a chance to influence them as friends the same way you’re going to treat implacable enemies, in those circumstances. I don’t begrudge anyone having policies that are tailored to the circumstances as long as you recognize that authoritarianism is not stable and you are trying to bring about change.

FP: Many in Washington see the Obama administration as downgrading the status of human rights issues, especially with countries like China and Russia — arguing that putting human rights behind closed doors into private discussions is more effective. Where do you come down on that?

CR: I think you have to do both. I raised plenty of human rights [concerns], particularly individual cases with the Russians or with the Chinese in private, but I think the United States can’t be silent about our belief that human beings have these rights and that governments that deny them are not only wrong but they’re on the wrong side of history. And so I’m a believer in being both public and doing it in private. They’re not mutually exclusive.

FP: What do you think about the Obama administration’s treatment of the Dalai Lama?

CR: Look, the Chinese are never going to be satisfied on that matter. And so you might as well go ahead and meet the Dalai Lama and let the Chinese complain about it for a while, and usually relations would get back on track, which is what happened with us.

FP: As we saw with the administration’s decision not to sell F-16s to Taiwan, there seems to be a concentration on not creating tension with China, and some believe that comes at the cost of making policy decisions that are not in the interest of those in the United States and its allies.

CR: You can take tough decisions with China and still have a productive relationship, as we did. Now, we didn’t sell F-16s either. I think you want to be concerned about the strategic balance, and at the time the Taiwanese under [then Taiwanese President] Chen Shui-Bian were in a rather provocative stance and so we made that decision. But we never shied away from the Taiwan Relations Act; we never shied away from human rights issues, the Dalai Lama.… And so it’s possible to have a nuanced relationship with China that permits productive engagement on issues of common interest, but also be very clear with the Chinese that you will defend American values as well as American interests.

FP: The argument made by almost all of the GOP presidential candidates is that currently the U.S. government is focusing too much on engaging with competitors that they’re calling "enemies" and not focusing enough on strengthening alliances. As a broad trend, do you see that to be the case?

CR: Well, I do think that early on, there was this idea of reaching out to adversaries, a little bit on the premise that they were adversaries who you could work with.… You reach out to the Iranians and they bite your hand off. So I think after a while, this idea that you build a policy around reaching out to adversaries has floundered and foundered, and now you have a much stronger understanding that those are states that you probably have to confront.

FP: So you see the Obama administration’s foreign policy as having matured over the years?

CR: Well, I think it’s evolved.

FP: About Russia, now that we know that Vladimir Putin is set to run and win in the next election, what is your comment on the state of Russian democracy?

CR: I’m really disappointed. It’s a terrible turn of events really, because there really hasn’t been an effort to, shall we say, "pretend" that there’s a democratic process to go through here. And the only good thing is that it has provoked a little bit of a backlash in Russia.… There is a sense of Russians being a bit flabbergasted by this turn of events. And that’s good.

I had liked the Medvedev agenda, even if I wasn’t sure that he could carry it out — you know, the idea that Russia would be a knowledge-based economy one day, not one just based on oil, gas, and minerals, and that to do that, it would have to be more tended to the rule of law and international integration. That all seemed very positive to me. I’m somewhat disappointed at this turn of events.

FP: Did you believe that there was an actual competition between Medvedev and Putin, or did you believe that they were two peas in a pod?

CR: No, I didn’t. I always assumed that Putin was powerful enough to do what he wanted to do, but I was hoping that Medvedev was beginning to develop a constituency among the many Russians that have now lived in the world, operated in the world, and don’t want Russia to act as a backward, authoritarian state.

FP: Do you believe that the Russians should be granted membership into the WTO?

CR: I think that the WTO has a purpose to harmonize rules in the international economy, and when Russia is ready for its ascension, I support its accession.

FP: On Iraq, there’s a current debate about what actually happened when the Bush administration signed the 2008 SOFA agreement. My understanding at the time was that there was an expectation that it would be renegotiated to provide for a further extension of U.S. troops. Is that so?

CR: I think there was an expectation that we would most likely negotiate something that looked like a residual force, for training with the Iraqis. We did manage to negotiate an immunity clause that was acceptable to the Iraqis and acceptable to the Pentagon.

I don’t quite know what happened in these negotiations. I think everybody believed it would be better if there were some kind of regional force. In the absence of that, maybe a regional solution will work. I’ve read about maybe troop buildup in the region; I think that’s a way to do it. The Iraqis are good armed forces; they’re buying a lot of our equipment. I think they’ll be able to defend themselves. They continue to need help on the counterterrorism side, and it would have been a good message to Iran. Although I think it’s easy to overstate the degree to which the Iraqis have any attraction to Iran — that’s a pretty lousy relationship, really.

FP: The immunity that you negotiated did not go through the Iraqi parliament, right? That was an executive-to-executive agreement right?

CR: Exactly. I don’t know enough to know whether or not that option was available, but it would have been a preferable option.… I think it would have been preferable to have trainers, but you need to maintain a military-to-military relationship in any case.

FP: And just to be clear, there was an expectation that there would be renegotiation for another extension that was understood by both sides?

CR: We certainly understood that the Iraqis reserved that option, and everybody believed that option was going to be exercised.

FP: The Afghanistan timetable for withdrawal says that the surge troops will be removed by 2012. The critics of the administration say that this is political, because there’s no military or strategic reason to set that date other than the [U.S. presidential] election. Do you believe that this decision represents more of a political objective than a military one?

CR: Well, I’m not going to try and judge the motives here. I hope that these deadlines are set with some sense of what you want to have accomplished by that time.

The surge troops were there for a reason, [and] I’m not close enough to the situation to make an assessment of whether or not they can come out. But I do know that the 2014 deadline that is looming out there, we really do have to have trained an Afghan army that is capable of preventing an existential threat to the government. We have to have done something to improve the provincial and national leadership and institutions for the Afghans. I think both of those are doable in the next couple years. The one that I’m worried about is the instability in Pakistan, because a lot of Afghanistan’s problems are Pakistani.

FP: This is the biggest foreign-policy issue of this week: The U.N. crisis caused by the Palestinian membership in UNESCO. And it’s a crisis that’s only getting larger and larger. There could be up to 16 U.N. organizations, including the IAEA and the World Health Organization, where the U.S. will have to withdraw based on the law if the Palestinians are admitted. What are we to think of this, and what should be done to get us out of this crisis?

CR: Well, you know, actually, if the U.N. wants to go down this road, let them see how well they do without U.S. support. I don’t have any sympathy for UNESCO or anybody else that decides they are going to jump over what has long been the way we’re going to get to a Palestinian state, which is negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

I think we made some mistakes. Look, I just wrote the [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert offer. I do think the administration would have been better off not to start with the settlement freeze, which no Israeli prime minister can do and which put the Palestinians in a position of having to be less Palestinian than the United States, had they not gone along with that. So I think we made some mistakes, but this is not the way to react to that, and I have no problem putting the U.N. on notice that they will lose American support if they go down this road.

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