Among foreign policy cognoscenti, the consensus opinion is that Condoleezza Rice has been a below-average-to-disastrous national security adviser and an average secretary of state. Such figures do not usually rate serious biographies; Rice has netted three before leaving office. This speaks to her unique biography and political savviness. She has traveled from Bull Connor's Birmingham to become the first black female secretary of state. She outlasted or outfoxed bureaucratic rivals to become George W. Bush's most trusted adviser in foreign affairs.
Rice is also a study in contradictions. A beneficiary of affirmative action programs when hired as a political science professor at Stanford (where she taught me as a graduate student), as provost she rejected that policy in making tenure decisions. A disciple of former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft's realist internationalism for most of her policymaking career, she embraced much of the neoconservative agenda following the September 11 attacks -- and yet on becoming secretary of state, she jump-started multilateral diplomacy with the regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran. Rice's lack of introspection does not make explanation easier. She told one of her biographers, "I don't find it all that useful to spend a lot of time analyzing myself."
Fortunately, these biographies do the analyzing for her, injecting nuance into a subject predominated by stereotype, hyperbole, and innuendo. The most sympathetic biographer is Mabry, a international business editor. He focuses on Rice's formative years in Alabama and Colorado. Mabry's thesis is that Rice's strengths are also her weaknesses. Her focus, discipline, determined optimism, and grace under pressure enabled her to overcome race and gender barriers (as well as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld). These same qualities, however, have rendered her unable to acknowledge errors in judgment -- especially her own.
Bumiller was ' White House correspondent from 2001 to 2006, and so it should not be surprising that her coverage of Rice's National Security Council tenure is the most thorough. On the one hand, Bumiller chronicles how many of the Bush administration's bigger foreign policy blunders took place because Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney simply cut Rice out of the decision-making loop; she also hints at the implicit sexism behind their machinations. On the other hand, Bumiller argues that Rice tolerated a dysfunctional interagency process for far too long, despite clear and compelling evidence that something was wrong. This biography is dispassionate but at times too detached. In a sharp contrast to Mabry, Bumiller leaves little of her own analysis on the page.
The coldest assessment comes from Kessler's book, which focuses almost exclusively on Rice's first two years at Foggy Bottom. As 's chief State Department correspondent, Kessler was well placed to observe those years. As Iraq sapped the Bush administration's time and energy, Rice found herself having to reverse course on numerous issues -- particularly democracy promotion. Kessler in addition stresses Rice's alienation of the State Department's Foreign Service officers, an eerie parallel to her experience as Stanford's provost. As the biographer with the least access, Kessler is the most unsparing. Unwittingly, The Confidante also reveals the limits of psychoanalyzing individual policymakers to explain U.S. foreign policy. Compared with the blowback from powerful structural forces in world politics, even the most compelling biography pales in comparison.