You know the feeling you get right after an accident? The moment after the laptop slips from your hands or your car scrapes another vehicle and you cringe, it’s hard not to wonder, “How could that have happened?” There’s an instant of shock, and then frustration and regret. Even if the result is just minor property damage or lost funds, accidents can be maddening. And if our missteps cause harm to another living being, well—magnify that regret exponentially.
And if our mistakes hurt hundreds of people—or thousands—it’s frankly hard for most of us to even fathom.
With that in mind, it’s difficult to imagine how Condoleezza Rice felt during the days following September 11, 2001. President George W. Bush’s then-national security advisor was with faced with the immeasurably devastating results of her administration’s “systematic failure”: the failure to prevent a terrorist attack on American soil and the deaths of more than 2,000 people. The introduction to her newest memoir, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, begins with Dr. Rice staring into the mirror two days after September 11 and wondering, “How could this have happened?”
In the ten years since the attack on the World Trade Center, there’s been plenty said about how it happened. In fairness to Rice, though, hindsight has a way of sharpening vision. For her part, Rice is open about the mistakes, slow communication, and disorganization in the White House that lead to such an earth-scorching event. She doesn’t dwell—and she keeps her prose more analytical than emotional—but she admits that mistakes were made. For the remainder of her book, she focuses on how the Bush administration chose to move forward (controversially, in many instances) in light of such devastating events.
At the beginning of No Higher Honor, the author posits that although the media had plenty of criticism for the choices made during the Bush administration, the decisions in the years following 9/11 were farsighted plans to better the world, promoting stability and democracy in countries that once fostered unrest and terrorism. “Today’s headlines and history’s judgment are rarely the same,” she says in her prologue. “If you are too attentive to the former, you will most certainly not do the hard work of securing the latter.”
Of course, intentions aside, the Bush administration’s legacy has, as of today, been marred by mistakes and tragedies that Rice honestly admits to: flawed intelligence reports, the inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the scandal at Abu Ghraib, the race-class issues regarding Hurricane Katrina evacuations, and the loss of life due to war. Bush’s time in office is bookended by 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008, which has to contribute to how he’ll be remembered.
What No Higher Honor also chronicles, though, is the immensely substantive work Rice did in Washington and abroad. After 9/11, she worked 39 consecutive days, striving to prevent another attack. She traveled tirelessly to strengthen diplomatic relationships; she encouraged the creation of a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel; she even endured some creepiness from leaders like Muammar Qaddafi (have you heard of “Black Flower in the White House”, the song Qaddafi had written for his “African Princess”?) to ensure that Libya would disarm its most dangerous weapons. She helped establish the Middle Eastern Peace Conference at Annapolis. Her holiday celebrations across the board—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter—were cut short for work, and sleep was interrupted. The occasional vacation was almost always abbreviated.
Rice is ever-gracious and industrious in her book, which gives the impression of class—but also caution. Like everyone in politics, she’s clearly aware of her rhetoric’s impact. When she describes her free time, she’s always engaged in virtuous or all-American pastimes like watching NFL football, attending church, playing golf, or practicing the piano, which makes the memoir feel political (naturally) and somewhat less authentic. Words used to describe diplomatic relationships include “cordial”, “modest”, “pleasant” and “polite”. Words that are notably infrequent or missing: “oil”, “Halliburton”, “FEMA”, “No Child Left Behind”.
It would’ve been interesting to hear more from the author about those or other controversial subjects. I personally would have liked to read more about why the Bush administration trusted Pakistan to take a stand against terrorism after 9/11 when, as we all learned in 2011, Osama bin Laden made a home there for at least five years. And I would’ve liked to read more than the mere four pages she devoted to Katrina—brevity that’s strange since the chapter titled “Katrina” is a full ten pages long.
But maybe she felt the press has already said enough about these subjects, so she didn’t need to contribute to the hype. Throughout No Higher Honor, she acknowledges that journalists sometimes have a way of “overwriting” and fixing on details and events hyperbolically. Example: she and her colleagues were surprised that the press was enamored with the label “axis of evil” during Bush’s speech on the dangers of weapon capabilities in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. She was also personally frustrated by her total loss of privacy to the media (she was made the subject of a long CNN segment by Dr. Sanjay Gupta after she underwent a procedure to treat uterine fibroids).
And in a more serious critique, she mentions a Newsweek article that falsely accused US soldiers of flushing a copy of the Koran down the toilet; Newsweek eventually retracted the story, but not before at least 15 people were killed in resulting riots in the Muslim world. The episode lends substance to her assertion in the prologue—that news headlines and history’s judgments are not necessarily the same.
More than anything, the hallmarks of No Higher Honor are the integrity of hard work and the ultimate joy in duty (despite a few periods of exasperation). She did have a few sparkling highlights during her time with Bush—accompanying Yo-Yo Ma on the piano, attending the Beijing Olympics, and celebrating her 50th birthday party in a gown made by her “good friend, Oscar de la Renta”—but she seems proudest of the progress she made in the Middle East. When she recalls seeing children playing soccer and women taking on greater occupational roles in Iraq, it’s clear that she sees her eight years of hard work paying off in significant ways. When she recounts inspiring speeches she gave about growing up as a young black woman in Alabama to foreign leaders at the Middle Eastern Peace Conference, she is understandably proud that her passion moved others.
Rice’s excellent conclusion proves her continued interest in promoting democracy throughout the world. She doesn’t claim to know what the long-term verdict will be regarding the legacy of the Bush administration; only that they did their best and thought “in broad historical strokes” regarding international stability and national security. Clearly, though, she hopes that the Freedom Agenda will eventually be seen as she saw it: as both right and necessary, moral and practical. By fighting terrorism as a concept and introducing democracy to the Middle East, she hoped to both protect the nation and better the lives of the world’s citizens. “History will judge how well we did,” she writes.
We all have a stake in “how [they] did”, of course, so it’s in our best interests to hope they did well. As for No Higher Honor, Rice gives a respectful, mostly diplomatic, and meticulously thorough account of her years in Washington. If you’ve ever wondered how she proceeded in the days directly following 9/11, how she regards Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney, how she responded when undermined on the job, or what she has to say about any number of issues she encountered with Bush—the decision to invade Iraq over Afghanistan, the benefits of a preemptive strike, the threats of Hamas and Hezbollah, the genocide at Darfur—you’ll find them in this comprehensive work.