Today's date:
Winter 2011

The Tea Party Is Good for America

Condoleezza Rice, the former US Secretary of State, has just published a memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People, about growing up in the segregated South. She was interviewed by Olivia Ward of the Toronto Star for NPQ’s Global Viewpoint Network.

NPQ | Your career has been a runaway success. What role did your family play?

Condoleezza Rice | When people ask me this question I say you have to know John and Angelena Rice. My parents were in many ways ordinary people—mom a schoolteacher, dad a high school guidance counselor, Presbyterian minister and later university administrator. I doubt they ever made $60,000 between them. But somehow in those crucible years of Birmingham, Ala., during segregation, they and my community had us all believing we might not have a hamburger at the Woolworth lunch counter, but we could be president of the United States if we wanted to be.

NPQ | Did you find it more difficult coping with racism or sexism during your career?

Rice | While in the US, race is a very open wound that I don’t think will ever completely close, I do think we’ve got to the point where we don’t have so much role definition in the way we see a person. They can be a doctor, secretary of state, and now president. With women, it’s still a problem. As secretary of state, they’re never going to offend you. But for women in the field it’s still hard. We still have a long way to go on the gender side.

NPQ | Iraq is also a painful subject: 100,000 Iraqis dead and 4,000 Americans. Do you have any regrets about the invasion?

Rice | I have absolutely no regret that we overthrew Saddam Hussein, although, of course, I wish things (afterward) had gone better. There were many sacrifices made in that war, and those of us who were responsible for helping President Bush make those decisions mourn those losses and will always be haunted by them. But I also recognize that the arc of history is a long, not a short, one. We shouldn’t judge big historical changes as snapshots. The conversation we’re having now isn’t about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or invasion of Kuwait, but can Sunni and Shia find a way to form a government. Just think about what that means for the Middle East—a multi-confessional Arab state, the most important one strategically, and the discussion is about forming a government.

NPQ | Some would say the war destabilized the Middle East and left Iran more powerful in the region.

Rice | I don’t agree. While I’m very concerned about Iranian nuclear weapons, I think it’s a weaker power now than at any time since the revolution. After (the contentious election) of 2009 the clerics are at each other’s throats and the economy is sinking under the weight of sanctions and the bad decisions of (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad. The countries in the region are worried. A weak state can be dangerous. But Iraq will ultimately be a balancer to Iran. Iraqi Shia aren’t Persian but Arab. They have no intention of letting Iran run their country.

NPQ | And Afghanistan—has that campaign been weakened by the Iraq war?

Rice | I was very much inside the government at that time and I can say it’s simply not true. We spent enormous amounts of time on both Afghanistan and Iraq. ...It was a deliberate decision in the early years to have a light footprint in Afghanistan, to have most of the fighting done by Afghans. When things went bad (on the border of) Pakistan, which had become a safe haven for terrorists, then the strategy had to change. Afghanistan was always going to be hard...but it’s now a place where there is a constitution, girls are going to school, women aren’t executed in a soccer stadium as they were under the Taliban. I think we undervalue the contribution of the NATO alliance, and Canada in particular, which made great sacrifices in the war to move Afghanistan forward. It doesn’t mean democracy has arrived, but it’s a better place than it was in 2001.

NPQ | The world has changed since Sept. 11, 2001, the two wars and the economic meltdown. Is the US prepared for the rise of new global powers?

Rice | It’s natural in the international system. China is the strongest of those countries, but its economic miracle is not without political and social strains. (It should be) looking for ways to loosen the reins a bit on this rigid political system to accommodate the rapid economic and social changes that are taking place. When people say China is going to dominate the global economy, I just ask, “Can a country so terrified of the Internet that it is hacking into servers to catch the last human rights advocate lead the knowledge-based revolution?” I don’t think so.

NPQ | The US political landscape has also taken a hit. Has the Tea Party changed the nature of the game?

Rice | I certainly hope so. It’s a grassroots movement that is concerned—maybe even alarmed—by what it sees in Washington. A lot of people feel the federal government has overreached. The US has a long history of smaller government, longer than most of our friends around the world. I also think it’s saying that the conversation in Washington and the one in the rest of the country are not the same conversation. The distance between Washington and the rest of the country is pretty dramatic. I am one who does not think it will have a negative effect.

NPQ | Not a ringing endorsement of Washington coming from a former insider.

Rice | I fled to California as soon as we were done. It’s no accident I didn’t stay in Washington, D.C.

NPQ | If you could be remembered for one thing, what would it be?

Rice | I hope that we stood for the proposition that no man, woman or child should have to live in tyranny. I grew up in segregated Alabama, so I don’t have rose-colored glasses about the US. But for all its problems it’s a free and vibrant society. I believe that democracy takes time—but it’s worth it.