When you listen to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice–both in the above video and at Policy Change? US Talks with Syria on ABC News–one is seduced by the charm, style, and drive of a very important player in the Bush administration. One realizes she is responsible for for the changes in the Bush administration’s moderate turn—Syria, Iran, North Korea are no longer off the invitation list—but still there is a problem, one that all three of her critics, including the author himself, interviewed in David Samuels’s Grand Illusions, present in three different ways.
What I witnessed in Jerusalem and Ramallah was a show put on for the television cameras, starring Condoleezza Rice. Thanks largely to circumstance, and to her talents on the public stage, Rice has succeeded where Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, pulling in opposite directions during Bush’s first term, failed. She has assembled an alliance of Arab states working to help the United States contain Iran, stabilize Iraq, and keep Syria out of Lebanon. Her success becomes even more paradoxical when one realizes that she is not a classic believer in process diplomacy—in fact, she loathes it. Rice is the product of a structuralist academic background and has a deep personal belief in the primacy of “underlying historical forces,” a conviction in direct conflict with the optics of her current role as the public face of America’s new coalition-building effort in the Middle East.
Practically, Rice is torn between her strong belief in the necessity and the inevitability of democratic change in the Middle East and the fact that America’s coalition depends in large part on the goodwill of Saudi Arabia, which insists that the United States downplay its desire for change. Rice is torn between her long-term commitment to democracy and the actual short-term results of democracy. She is trying to have things both ways, a fact that she understands, because she is not stupid. At the same time, she believes she can have things both ways, because she believes that history is on her side.
“I used to deal with Condi when I was head of Mossad and she was national-security adviser, and I had a great respect for her, and admiration,” Halevy says. “I still do. But I think that in her role of secretary of state, things are not going too well. The main problem is that Condi Rice was never an expert on the Middle East. That’s not her area of expertise. And therefore, she has to rely on others. And the others in this case is a lawyer who is an ideologue”—meaning Elliott Abrams—“who believes that you can promote a certain ideology anywhere and everywhere around the world if you think it’s the right ideology. And you really don’t have to know very much about the basic facts in the region that you’re dealing with, because you have to tailor the region to your ideology.”
Halevy spent four decades in what was regarded as the best intelligence service in the Middle East, and he has only disdain for what he sees as the loony idea that American-style democracy can be implanted here. As an intelligence professional, he believes that the only path to understanding the Middle East, or anywhere else, for that matter, is to look as deeply as one can into the specifics of individual personalities, their hopes, dreams, and weaknesses, their bank accounts, the stories of their families, their tribes, the histories of their friends and enemies—the kind of material a novelist might use. By substituting ideology for local knowledge, he says, the Bush administration chose fantasy over reality, a choice that can only end in disaster.
“To believe that you can promote democracy on the one hand,” he says, staring down at the table and glumly stirring his tea, “and on the other hand, having a parallel system of providing guns and equipment to one warlord and to another warlord, and combining these two different programs in some way and sort of monitoring them in a way which is totally unrelated to the situation on the ground, because the situation on the ground doesn’t matter. Because what you need to do is change the situation on the ground.” Halevy stops stirring his tea and leans back on the couch. “I think that this whole idea of democratization was a flawed concept,” he says, finally making eye contact. “Democracy in Israel evolved from within. It didn’t come because somebody in Washington waved the wand and said, ‘Israel should be democratic.’”
The worst thing about the administration’s active fantasy life, Halevy believes, is that it has sucked Israel into a realm of illusion, where it cannot afford to live. He has nothing but scorn for the letters exchanged between Bush and Sharon, and suggests that by the time Weissglas took control of relations with Washington, Sharon was already old and sick and increasingly disconnected from reality.
According to Halevy, the letters were a concrete artifact of a relationship that included other understandings, some oral, that together prevented Israel from taking any independent diplomatic or military action without fully informing the United States. Contrary to what Americans often believe, the United States had very little to do with the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations in 1977, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords, or the peace treaty that Halevy helped negotiate between Israel and Jordan. In each case, the peace treaties that were signed on the White House lawn marked the ceremonial end of years of contacts and negotiations, of which the United States was unaware until months or weeks before the final agreements were signed.
“Israel today will not do anything, take no initiative whatsoever,” Halevy says, “unless the United States approves it. It was never that way before.” The retired spymaster sips his tea, and looks me in the eye as he searches for an appropriate way to define how the relationship has changed.
“Insemination is an act of two, not of three,” he finally says. “As a result of what happened in 2003 and 2004, the natural act of insemination between Israel and its neighbors is no longer possible.”
A few days earlier, I had been to see Henry Kissinger in his offices on Park Avenue, where, at 83 years old, he still reports regularly for work and occasionally offers counsel to the president and the vice president. Kissinger’s career as an academic, and journey from national-security adviser to secretary of state, suggests some interesting parallels with Rice’s own trajectory, including the ability to win and keep the trust of an isolated president. America’s most famous and reviled diplomat doesn’t believe that history is a story of human progress. In part this may be because he is a European Jew who lived through Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and fled with his parents to America as the world they had grown up in destroyed itself and half of Europe. Kissinger left me with the strong impression that he considered Rice’s insistence on holding elections in Iraq and in the rest of the Middle East to be naive and impractical.
“Whom could they vote for after 40 years of Saddam?” he asked. “The people they were closest to, which were their ethnic or religious group. That then confirmed the divisions, it did not create a consensus.” On my right, in silver picture frames, was a cozy selection of world leaders like Nelson Mandela and Helmut Kohl, smiling at Kissinger. Rather than look to the model of American democracy, he said, developing nations might emulate the more gradual evolutions of countries like Chile, South Korea, and Singapore. “We’re applying the experiences of parliamentary-type democracy, 19th-century bourgeois democracy, to areas that have a much more complicated history, or a much different history,” Kissinger said.
I asked him why the answers we draw from our own historical experience so often prove destructive to other countries. He rested his famous jowls on the collar of his blue shirt and began to rumble. “We’ve never had to deal with contingent issues in the sense that our problems have had absolute answers, or at least answers we considered absolute,” he said. “So with very little preparation, most of our problems have proved soluble. They have always yielded to the application of resources and ingenuity, and to finite time scales. Much of this is not true in the rest of the world.”
When I describe my conversation with Kissinger to Rice, she firmly rejects the idea that America might look to “soft authoritarian” regimes as a model for peaceful development. “I still believe that, however complex and sometimes chaotic democratic processes and democracies are, they’re still preferable,” she says with a vigorous nod. “If you start settling for the way stations along the way, that’s a problem.” Chileans and South Koreans don’t see the authoritarian periods in their recent histories as part of a transition to democracy, she adds. “They see those as periods of time that had to be overcome.”
By historical standards, it is too early to tell whether the big choices that Rice and the president have made will turn out right or wrong, and whether the Middle East will embrace democracy. What seems clear is that much of the damage we have done to ourselves and to our friends was avoidable. The prospect of a grand bargain, one that will rejigger a complicated region of the world to America’s satisfaction, seems like yet another illusion, whose price is likely to be high.
The Samuels article, describing events from August 2006 to March 2007, is a must-read just for the details Rice avoids.