Three days after 9/11, Condoleezza Rice sat down at Camp David with key Bush administration national security officials to help the president craft his response to the first major attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor.
Rice, then 46, was no novice. But as she dined on buffalo steak with her more experienced colleagues – Dick Cheney, vice-president, Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary, and Colin Powell, secretary of state – she realised she had entered a different league. “For the first time ... I felt a bit out of place,” Rice writes in No Higher Honour, her account of eight years serving George W Bush as national security adviser and then as the first female African-American secretary of state.
Describing the first of these roles, Rice says she intended to be an “honest broker, not a separate power broker”. But she leaves the impression that she was ineffectual, mainly because she was no match for the personalities and skilled bureaucratic infighting of Powell, Rumsfeld and Cheney.
Rice describes Rumsfeld telling her that their relationship “just doesn’t work” even though she was “bright”. “Bright? That, I thought to myself, is part of the problem,” she writes. “Don had been more comfortable in the old days, when he was the senior statesman championing my career.”
She gently rebukes Cheney, who took a harder line on detainees, Iran and North Korea. Although Rice never made this clear at the time, she says she disagreed with his “naive” view that Iraqis would welcome the US as liberators. She writes that she and the vice-president “often disagreed and argued vociferously in front of the president”, adding somewhat implausibly that “it was never personal”.
The most interesting part of the book is her account of being secretary of state from 2005, by which point she had become a better match for her peers. Overall, however, No Higher Honour is unsatisfying. While Rice recounts copious detail about Middle East peace process diplomacy, she pays insufficient attention to the more controversial issues: the decision to invade Iraq, discussions about whether to bomb Iran and the Afghanistan war.
Rice does provide a window into the worsening relationship between the White House and the Pentagon that led to Rumsfeld’s dismissal, writing that by 2004 she no longer believed the defence department’s “metrics” on Iraq. “I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the Pentagon’s attitude ... the briefings for the president had devolved from incomprehensible to inexplicable”.
There are also some welcome insights into the personal views of a government official who often came across as the puppet to Bush’s ventriloquist. Of Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the wily Iraqi national security adviser, Rice writes that at one point “I wanted to punch him”. On Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir: “I loathed him.” On meeting Émile Lahoud, the Lebanese president, she says: “After I shook his hand, I felt like I needed a shower.”
One of her most intriguing encounters was with the late Libyan leader Colonel Muammer Gaddafi, who called the US secretary of state his “African princess”. Rice was nervous when Gaddafi mentioned that he had made her a videotape – a collection of images of her with world leaders. “It was weird, but at least it wasn’t raunchy,” she writes, before concluding that Gaddafi “lives inside his own head, in a kind of alternate reality”.
The biggest disappointment of her memoir is that despite portraying herself – accurately – as having a very close relationship with Bush, she fails to paint a detailed portrait of the man. There are a few morsels, including a story about Bush refusing to sleep on a moth-ridden sofa bed in the White House basement when there was a security scare. But by the end we are no closer to getting inside the head of the most controversial US president since Richard Nixon.
Rice is more candid than other Bush officials in expressing regrets, although they tend to be on tactics rather than strategy. She says she “visibly stiffened” when Bush told reporters after a meeting with Vladimir Putin that he had looked the Russian president in the eye and got “a sense of his soul”. She also wishes she had acted when Powell said of Rumsfeld: “Why doesn’t the president just square the circle? One of us needs to go.”
She chalks the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq down as one regret but was “not sorry that we overthrew Saddam”. Oddly, Rice does not seem to have given much thought to the more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians Iraqi Body Count estimates have died since the 2003 invasion.
In office, Rice rarely made news, a tradition she has upheld in No Higher Honour. Readers outside the Washington beltway must decide whether they want to trudge through 784 pages of – mostly – well-trodden ground.
Demetri Sevastopulo is the FT’s Asia news editor. He was previously Pentagon and intelligence correspondent in Washington
No Higher Honour: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, by Condoleezza Rice, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20, 784 pages