Over lunch, Condi bequeaths the terror war to successor

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images I had lunch this week with Condoleezza Rice. OK, so it wasn’t exactly an intimate tête-à-tête; the secretary of state was the keynote speaker at the Women’s Foreign Policy Group‘s annual luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton, where she spoke to a crowd of about 400, including yours truly. Condi was pretty much as ...

597673_071211_condi_05.jpg
597673_071211_condi_05.jpg

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

I had lunch this week with Condoleezza Rice. OK, so it wasn't exactly an intimate tête-à-tête; the secretary of state was the keynote speaker at the Women's Foreign Policy Group's annual luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton, where she spoke to a crowd of about 400, including yours truly. Condi was pretty much as expected: polished, pleasant, unflappable, and on message.

Her speech began with a bland discussion of general U.S. foreign-policy issues. Yawn. Rice did draw laughs from the crowd when she got in a little dig at Thomas Jefferson, mentioning that the first secretary of state would have never anticipated that the 66th secretary of state would be an African-American woman. She had a little slip of the tongue, saying that when her 12 years in office were over, it will have been 12 years since a white male occupied the top office in Foggy Bottom. Then she laughed, said that it "only feels like 12," and gave a nod to Madeline Albright and Colin Powell, "trailblazers also in their own right."

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

I had lunch this week with Condoleezza Rice. OK, so it wasn’t exactly an intimate tête-à-tête; the secretary of state was the keynote speaker at the Women’s Foreign Policy Group‘s annual luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton, where she spoke to a crowd of about 400, including yours truly. Condi was pretty much as expected: polished, pleasant, unflappable, and on message.

Her speech began with a bland discussion of general U.S. foreign-policy issues. Yawn. Rice did draw laughs from the crowd when she got in a little dig at Thomas Jefferson, mentioning that the first secretary of state would have never anticipated that the 66th secretary of state would be an African-American woman. She had a little slip of the tongue, saying that when her 12 years in office were over, it will have been 12 years since a white male occupied the top office in Foggy Bottom. Then she laughed, said that it “only feels like 12,” and gave a nod to Madeline Albright and Colin Powell, “trailblazers also in their own right.”

Basically, there was not much of real substance to her speech, but at least the Q&A session, moderated by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, touched on some real items in the news. She refused to answer questions about the CIA interrogation tapes scandal, saying that she didn’t know about their destruction in 2005, but not commenting on questions about what she knew about the actual interrogations, which occurred when she was national security adviser in 2002. Asked about Guantánamo later, she did mention, “no one would like to close it more than I and, I think, the president.”

She handled a question about Iran with characteristic aplomb, and reiterated an offer to meet with her Iranian counterpart, anytime, anywhere … as soon as Iran scaled back and complied with international standards. As far as the greater Middle East goes, Rice expressed her personal faith in Abbas and Olmert (conveniently not mentioning their weak domestic status in their respective homes), and said that peace talks would not have been feasible even three months ago.

What struck me the most about Rice’s lunchtime talk was what she didn’t say. She barely mentioned Afghanistan and Iraq. She never uttered the name “Osama bin Laden.” In 50 minutes, the word “terrorism” crossed her lips but twice, and then only to muse about the challenges her successors would face. The war on terror has been the centerpiece of Bush’s foreign policy, and yet she didn’t mention it once in her prepared remarks. Could it be a reflection of a changing mindset inside the administration?

Christine Y. Chen is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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