Oversimplifying Condoleezza Rice

The Bush administration, and one of its key members, deserve a second look.

There is some merit to the general argument that Paul Pillar makes in his recent commentary on the need for a more elevated discourse on foreign policy and a need to refrain from “rhetorical drumbeat[s] from rightward portions of the commentariat.” But in reacting to a recent Washington Post op-ed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Pillar indulges in the very same rhetorical drumbeating that he accuses Rice of committing.

In advocating a more forceful American response in the current Ukraine crisis, Rice offered several measured recommendations – including diplomatic isolation, asset freezes and travel bans – of which the movement of military forces into the region was one of several options. Pillar chooses himself to focus only on the last of these to suggest that Rice is leading the drumbeat for war. Furthermore, his offhand dismissal of “the failure of past policies” in the region does not indicate what those policies actually were, let alone justify how they were failures. He makes no mention, for example, of the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty or the planned deployment of missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. Pillar may have valid arguments for disagreeing with these Bush-era instruments, but if he does, he doesn’t present them here.

Instead, Pillar unwittingly subjects his readers to a roughshod rehashing of many of the tired critiques and misinformed generalizations of the George W. Bush administration’s approach to foreign policy – denying any merit to the choices those officials made, let alone any concession that some of the very policies he criticizes may have generated the opportunities he rightly praises President Obama for seizing.

Among Pillar’s main critiques is the notion that Rice strays from her primary focus on Russia’s recent engagement in Crimea into a wide-ranging indictment of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. But Pillar himself strays from a close analysis of the circumstances that contributed the Ukraine crisis by failing to engage in a careful review of the Bush administration’s approach toward Russia and instead returning to the commentariat’s standard refrain of the impact the Iraq War had as “a prominent detriment to U.S. credibility.” It seems a bit unfair and rather surprising for a well-respected policy analyst like Pillar to settle for such tired arguments that have been rehashed at nauseam on the campaign trail in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. If President Obama deserves praise for what he has accomplished in foreign policy, he also deserves criticism for where those policies fall short, and to continue to invoke the specter of the Iraq War circumvents any real analysis of the merits of the choices made in 2014 because of a need to relitigate those made more than a decade ago.

Furthermore, in arguing against the “toughness fallacy,” Pillar seemingly denies any merit to policies that constitute the “sticks” side of the ledger in coercive diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program. In accusing Rice of “quietly whitewashing recent history,” Pillar argues that the Bush administration “blew an opportunity to limit that program when there were only a fraction of the Iranian centrifuges spinning that there are now.” It’s Pillar’s history, however, that seems whitewashed to serve his purposes. The 2005 election of the hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quickly followed by an announcement from the regime that it would break the IAEA seals at Iran’s nuclear facilities and resume its enrichment activities, a violation of an agreement struck in 2004 with the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

Contrary to what Pillar might suggest, the spoiler to any nuclear deal during the early 2000s wasn’t the Bush administration; it was the regime in Tehran itself. Furthermore, it seems highly unlikely that the Iranians would have ever sought, let alone agreed to, the 2013 preliminary agreement that Pillar commends in the absence of significant sanctions pressure enforced under both Presidents Bush and Obama. In fact, the sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Iran’s oil and natural gas sectors were much “tougher” than anything achieved under its predecessor, but the slow ratcheting up of pressure by the Bush administration helped deliver what Pillar praises as “the farthest-reaching restriction on the Iranian program ever achieved.”

Perhaps the most egregious flaw in Pillar’s analysis occurs when he blames Rice for her “horrendous failure” as national security adviser to preside over a policy process that adequately weighed the merits of going to war in Iraq in 2003. Several paragraphs earlier Pillar criticizes the politically motivated punditry for “disparaging Barack Obama by blaming him for just about everything going on in the world.” But Pillar himself does just that when going after Rice.

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