Condoleezza Rice’s Retrospect on Iraq: ‘We Could Have Done Better’

Image credit: Donna Svennevik/ABC

She served eight years in the Bush administration as national security advisor and secretary of state, and now Condoleezza Rice is out with a memoir, “No Higher Honor,” where she paints a detailed and, at times, disturbing picture of policy making while conducting two wars.

She never directly addressed it in her book, so I asked her the question on many people’s minds — if she thought the war in Iraq was worth the sacrifice in lives lost and money spent.

“Now, we didn’t go to Iraq to bring democracy to the Iraqis.  And I try in the book to really explain that that wasn’t the purpose,” she said.

“This was a security threat of Saddam Hussein, who had started wars before, used weapons of mass destruction, was shooting at aircraft in the no-fly zone, was still threatening his neighbors, had tried to assassinate George H.W. Bush, was a cancer in the Middle East and a great source of that volatility in the Middle East, needed to be dealt with,” she said. “And I, as much as anybody, understand and really regret the cost, particularly in lives.  But I also know that nothing of value is ever won without sacrifice.”

Rice remained confident that Hussein was not “removable by any other means” and writes in her book that she’s “grateful that today’s concern is not an impending nuclear arms race between Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.” 

But don’t we know now that Saddam had no meaningful nuclear weapons program?

“He had the scientists, he had the infrastructure,” Rice said. “He was buying all kinds of stuff through front companies.  He had not reconstituted it.  But the idea that Saddam Hussein had given up on weapons of mass destruction, I think, is simply ahistorical. … And I cannot imagine that Saddam Hussein watching Iran move along a nuclear path [and not reacting], given all the infrastructure he had, given all the knowledge he had, given that we know that when in 1991, the inspectors got there, he was far closer to his nuclear device than they thought.”

The former secretary of state is honest, at times brutally honest, about her colleagues. She writes about Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff, who she calls “very hawkish,” and told me they were “determined to try and drive policy from the vice president’s office when, of course, you have to drive policy from the [National Security Council], which represents the president and represents the other agencies of government.”

When Cheney was asked if Rice was a competent secretary of state he answered, “in some regards.”  Rice said that Cheney “clearly did not like the turn of policy after I became secretary of state,” but she never thought it was personal.

As for the claim that Rice went to Cheney with tears in her eyes, telling him he was correct that the White House should not have backed off the claim the Iraq had attempted to buy uranium, Rice had a slightly different version of events, telling me she doesn’t remember any tears.

“It’s sort of not like me,” she said. “I did tell him that he was right that the press would react in a particular way to admitting that the 16 words … should not have been in the president’s speech.  But tearful? No.”

Her relationship with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was also strained.  She writes that Rumsfeld “resented” the role she played as National Security Advisor and she once asked him what had gone wrong in their friendship.

“And he said he didn’t [know] either, that we always got along, which was true.  And then he said something about my being bright … It just bugged me.  It was one of those words that you don’t use about a colleague,” she said, adding it was a term of “inequality.”

I asked if she thought the internal conflict she describes in the book added to the price we paid in Iraq.

“Well, certainly we could have done better.  And you’re right, as I look back on this, I think, ‘Well if it had been a more smoothly functioning team, mightn’t we have gotten some of these issues out onto the table and resolved?’” she said. “But you also have to remember that this was a big proposition in Iraq. It was trying to, first of all, overthrow a dictator, which was, it turns out, the easy part, and then trying to help reconstruct a country that had no fabric whatsoever after all of these years of tyranny.”

Rice admitted there were “problems” within the administration, but not “confusion.”

“I think that the Defense Department didn’t execute at critical times, and that there were certain things that they didn’t plan for,” she told me. “And perhaps there was a view that we might be able to turn this over to Iraqi exiles more quickly than, certainly, the president was willing to do.”

Rice, who served as President George H. W. Bush’s advisor on Soviet matters, said it was a lot easier to be there for the end of a historical period, rather than the beginning of another historical period.

“We got to realize and harvest the benefits of what they had done in founding NATO and standing up to the Soviet Union, and standing vigil in Berlin, and we got to harvest that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and into the division of Germany, unification of Germany,” she said. “This time around, we were laying that groundwork after the horrible attacks of 9/11, and trying to make sense of what the future of American security policy was going to look like.”

This past year President Obama has had a few foreign policy achievements – such as the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. 

Rice told me she saw an extension of Bush’s policy to Obama’s administration.

“I think, in the final analysis, there has been a good deal of continuity,” she said. “Maybe we wouldn’t have thought that at the beginning.  And look, every administration comes to power talking about what they’re going to do differently.  But when you look at the foundation for the capture of or the kill of Osama bin Laden, when you look at the Iranian policy and the effort to build, now, an international coalition around financial sanctions for Iran.  When you look at the continuation of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of the foundation was laid years before.”

Watch more of my interview with Rice tonight on “Nightline.

George Stephanopoulos