Condoleezza Rice is to be questioned in public only about the Bush administration's policy on terrorism before September 11. But her negligence and incompetence encompasses the entirety of the Bush foreign policy.
The story of Rice's role in the destruction of the Middle East peace process has never been told.Yet the pattern of her conduct is of a piece with the disregard of terrorism despite all warnings before 9/11. The national security adviser is the central organizer of foreign policy for the president, and Rice quickly became one of President Bush's most intimate aides.
In January 2002, Rice launched a serious effort to restart the Middle East peace process. She hired Flynt Leverett, a foreign service officer on the policy planning staff of the state department, as director of the initiative. Rice told him she understood that the absence of a peace process was hurting the war on terrorism and that Leverett should propose any measures he thought necessary, regardless of political controversy. Leverett developed a plan dealing with security, Palestinian political reform and Jerusalem. Its core was essentially the same as President Clinton's ultimate proposal. Rice rejected it as politically untenable for Bush, who would have been forced to confront Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to enact it.
On April 4, Bush delivered a speech calling for a "two state" solution, but without any details, and sent his secretary of state, Colin Powell, to the region. Leverett traveled with him. Powell gained agreement for the basic outline of the original plan. But just as he was to announce his breakthrough, Rice intervened, instructing him that he could not discuss any political process and that the whole burden of accountability must be put on the Palestinians and none on the Israelis.
Rice had crumbled in the face of internal political opposition from the neoconservative armada. "The neocons in the Pentagon and the vice president's office, plus Karl Rove's political shop, prevailed," Leverett told me. Undeterred, Leverett turned to work on what became known as "the road map". On July 31, the Jordanian foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, met Rice to urge support for it. "Condi says, no. All you get is a speech, no plan," said Leverett. The next day King Abdullah came to see the president, bringing his foreign minister with him. "Condi had told the president nothing of her conversation," said Leverett, who was present. Bush instantly said of Abdullah's proposal: "Good idea, let's see what we can do on that." Leverett said, "That was the origin of the road map."
By November, the road map was ready to be publicly released. But Sharon opposed it, claiming that proposing it would interfere with the upcoming Israeli election. Leverett argued to Rice: "We had promised to put it out. If we pull it now we reverse a commitment and would be intervening in Israeli politics in another way. That argument was not appreciated by Condi. So they didn't put out the road map." It was only under pressure from Tony Blair, as a precondition to his alliance on the eve of the Iraq invasion, that Bush announced the road map on March 14 2003.
In June, Bush attended two summits on the road map, in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheik, where he expressed commitment. He turned the project over to Rice, who never presented him with a plan of how to achieve it. "He said that Condi would ride herd on this process. She never even saddled up," said Leverett. Six months earlier, Rice had appointed neoconservative Elliott Abrams as her Middle East coordinator on the national security council, and he threw up obstacles to prevent the road map from going forward. Bush, for his part, never followed up on his own rhetoric and was utterly absent from the policy making. So Leverett decided he must quit: "I didn't want to stick around for a charade."
On terrorism, Rice insists Bush wanted a strategy rather than to be "swatting flies". But the strategy that lay on her desk unimplemented on September 11 was virtually the same as the one presented to her by the NSC counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, on January 25 2001. On that fateful September 11, Rice was to deliver a speech on the administration priorities that stressed missile defense and not terrorism. Now, she will not release the full text of that speech.
The story of the Middle East debacle, like that of the pre-9/11 terrorism fiasco, reveals the inner workings of Bush's White House: the president -aggressive and manipulated, ignorant of his own policies and their consequences, negligent; the secretary of state - proud, instinctively subordinate, constantly in retreat; the vice-president - as Richelieu, conniving, at the head of a neoconservative cabal, the power behind the throne; the national security adviser - seemingly open, even vulnerable, posing as the honest broker, but deceitful and derelict, an underhanded lightweight.
· Sidney Blumenthal is former senior adviser to President Clinton and Washington editor of Salon.com
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004