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No Higher Honour: a Memoir of My Years in Washington

The exquisite discretion of Condoleezza Rice.

No Higher Honour: a Memoir of My Years in Washington
Condoleezza Rice
Simon & Schuster, 784pp, £20

It is said that you can't judge a book by its cover; but you can certainly judge an author by his or her book. Donald Rumsfeld's memoir of the Bush years, published early this year, was nasty, brutish, long and full of braggadocio, blaming everyone else for what had gone wrong. Condoleezza Rice's memoir, on the other hand, is nice, reserved and long. And she doesn't try to pin the blame on anyone but herself.

The problem with being indiscriminately nice about everyone is that the reader learns very little about the characters and what went on. Tellingly, Rice describes Vice-President Dick Cheney trying to muscle in on her role as national security adviser by chairing the regular White House meetings of "principals", involving top officials - but goes straight on to say how wonderful Cheney was and how warm their relationship remained.

I first met Rice more than 20 years ago when she sat in the back row of the US delegation to the "Two Plus Four" talks on German unification. I was in the back row of the British delegation. She was one of the most likeable colleagues I came across in my 30 years of working in diplomacy. No Higher Honour is her account of her career as US national security adviser and then secretary of state between 2001 and 2009. It is the last of the series of memoirs by the leading figures of George W Bush's years as president.

All the others tried to justify themselves and do down their peers, but Rice is much too discreet to do so. She even concedes that she got things wrong in opposing the military "surge" in Iraq. Her discretion cannot, however, mask the deep tragedy of the Bush era, which was the destructive role played by Cheney and Rumsfeld, two old chums from Gerald Ford's White House. Together, they ran rings around everyone else in the administration. Rice describes her rows with Rumsfeld, who could not tolerate what he saw as her attempts to interfere in the "chain of command" by talking to people at the Pentagon. And Cheney demands rhetorically: "The Pentagon has just liberated Iraq. What has the state department ever done?" Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's oddball sidekick, arranges a presentation to the president of intelligence on Iraq without her or the CIA's knowledge. Although she never says so, it is clear that she thinks Bush should have sacked Rumsfeld long before he did, and that the terrible twosome were at the root of many of Bush's foreign-policy problems.

Rice has had an extraordinary life, from her childhood in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, to becoming the first black woman in history to serve as US national security adviser and then secretary of state. Yet there is very little of Rice in the book, in part because she has already written another memoir about her childhood. There are occasional glimpses of her reserve: for instance, when she is required to put on a comic karaoke performance at a retreat of Asean foreign ministers and is told that her predecessor Colin Powell performed a pastiche of the Village People's "YMCA". She is horrified and at first refuses to do anything. Eventually, she has to be coaxed to perform a Brahms concerto on the piano as her contribution. She was very close to the Bushes, almost a member of the family, and manages to show the president as different from the popular caricature, describing the self-deprecating sense of humour that was always to be seen in private.

The book contains no secrets or great revelations. Rice kept no diary and these memoirs are largely reconstructed from official documents. As an academic historian, she has written a book that will be useful raw material to future historians, but it is not at all like the memoirs of Henry Kissinger, similarly an academic political scientist who held the positions of both national security adviser and secretary of state. Kissinger's memoirs were reflective and tried to draw lessons from his experiences. The only attempt at reflection in this book is a five-page epilogue that focuses on the Arab spring rather than her time in office.

No Higher Honour is more of a diplomatic tour d'horizon, a canter round the world as Rice rushes from one event to another. This is especially true of her account of what it was like to serve as secretary of state, when she was almost always on the road. She reveals that "the moments of reflection were always fleeting . . . as the next crisis emerged". Moving her from the White House to the state department must have been difficult for Bush. I remember the president consulting Tony Blair about whether or not to make her secretary of state at the summit in Hillsborough, Northern Ireland, in April 2003. He wasn't sure that he wanted to lose her and wasn't sure she was right for the job.

Naturally, the book is dominated by Iraq and it provides a useful corrective to the prevailing narrative. The picture that emerges is not one of a government bent on invading Iraq from the outset. Rice describes slapping down Paul Wolfowitz, the then deputy defence secretary, when he raised the subject of Iraq at the Camp David meeting called to discuss the response to the 11 September 2001 attacks. And she writes of how Washington gradually ran out of other options in 2002 for dealing with Saddam Hussein, capturing the sense of cock-up, rather than conspiracy, when the critical phrase about "a new resolution", on which the British had insisted, was left out of Bush's speech to the UN in autumn that year as a result of a typing error. Rice sat in the audience, panicked but unable to do anything about it, only for the president to realise what was missing and to ad-lib when he got to that section of the speech.

There is no sense of triumphalism; her treatment of the post-invasion period is shaped by the realisation that Iraq had "descended into chaos", of "how deep a hole" the US was in and her horror at sectarian violence, and by her hard-fought attempts to wrest control of Iraq away from the malign clutches of Rumsfeld.

A substantial portion of the rest of the book is devoted to the Middle East. It is clear that Rice longed to make a breakthrough in the peace process as secretary of state. And it is a tragedy that she was not able to make more progress. There was a chance when Ehud Olmert of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine thrashed out in secret between them a comprehensive deal covering refugees, Jerusalem and territory. But by the time they reached agreement, both men were too weak to make it public.

Reading this book, one realises how different events looked on the other side of the Atlantic. We saw Blair's first meeting with Bush as a nerve-racking chance to build a rapport with the new president after our very close relationship with Bill Clinton. Rice describes worrying whether the untested Bush could hold his own with "Rock Star" Blair.

Blair built a close relationship with Bush and went through two wars with him. In the end, however, as this book makes clear, we were coming from very different directions. When Blair made his Chicago speech on liberal interventionism in 1999, during the war in Kosovo, his approach was criticised by a young academic from Stanford, who argued that it was wrong for the US to risk American blood and treasure by intervening in pursuit of high ideals. That young academic was Condoleezza Rice.

Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair's chief of staff from 1995 to 2007. His latest book is "The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World" (Vintage, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?