Condi Rice was Boring, Judith Miller was the NYT's "WMD" — Brinkley Reports

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Veteran journalist comes to bury Condi, not praise her in biting speech at USF

By Joe Eskenazi

For all we know, Condoleezza Rice’s parents were decades ahead of their time. Most mothers and fathers of their day dealt with misbehavior with two simple techniques: Forehand and backhand. Yet perhaps the Rices were pioneers of the timeout.

How else to explain the Secretary of State’s near-obsession with isolation?

Joel Brinkley, a former top foreign correspondent for The New York Times, racked up enough frequent flier miles to summer at the Sea of Tranquility by trailing Rice here, there and everywhere as she (mis)applied George W. Bush’s tortured foreign policy.

And it’s a good bet that, in his notebook, the verb “isolate” was simply shortened to “i”.

“I can’t tell you how many times...

you’d ask her a question and the answer would be ‘We have to isolate them,’” recalled Brinkley in a recent discussion at the University of San Francisco’s Center for the Pacific Rim.

“I went to the Secretary of State’s [official Web archive] to search the term ‘isolate.’ It came back with page after page: ‘We have to isolate Hamas.’ ‘The world needs to increase Iran’s isolation.’ ‘The diplomatic strategy for Hezbollah is further isolation.’ ‘The Syrian government needs to start making a change in its behavior lest it isolate itself further in the international community.’

“Isolation, as far as I can tell, is not working in many places.”

After 23 years at the Times, Brinkley left last year to assume a visiting professorship of journalism at Stanford.

As a National Security Adviser, Rice failed to prevent Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld et al. from imposing their will on the world during Bush’s first term. When she ascended from the National Security Administration to State, she had a chance to “clean up all the messes she failed to modify or kill in her previous [capacity]: Iraq, Iran, Darfur, Russia, I could go on.”

Well, those messes go on as well. Brinkley believes Rice’s isolation mantra – not to mention Bush’s fitful and clumsy foreign policy – doomed her from the start.

For seven years, the Bush administration only lightly involved itself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the results were disastrous, Brinkley isn’t sure things will be better now that the U.S. is engaged. He darkly noted that the title of this week’s Mideast summit in Annapolis – of which Rice has been quoted as stating that “failure is not an option” -- has been “changed from ‘conference’ to ‘meeting,’ which suggests they don’t have very high expectations.”

In fact, Rice’s reputation for ineffectiveness has now even spread from dictators to mere editors. Earlier this year, she suffered the unprecedented embarrassment of having an op-ed column rejected by every newspaper she submitted it to – and, keep in mind, this is the sitting Secretary of State we’re talking about here.

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The word on the street was that Rice’s column was nothing more than an assemblage of pie-in-the-sky White House claptrap. Brinkley wanted to read it for himself, however, so he asked for a copy from the State Department’s public affairs office.

That copy never came. Brinkley believes State Department figures were worried he might, you know, write mean things about it.

“I can tell you that no Secretary of State has ever been in this position…she just doesn’t have much influence anymore.”

And perhaps even more damningly – she just ain’t good company.

“She’s rather wooden. ... And she’s so good at staying on message, it's frustrating. She gets very upset if her message doesn’t play the way she wants it to, and it usually doesn’t. We had off-the-record dinners and still, completely off the record, I never could get her to say anything interesting” said Brinkley.

He recalled a trip to Russia in which a diplomat flatly contradicted the White House line on Iran. On the flight home, Rice sent no fewer than three junior diplomats to the back of the plane “to spin us” before making the trip herself. “And she was mad! She said we’d fallen for this Russian trick. And all that accomplished was that we wrote our stories and also wrote that she was angry.”

Brinkley’s prediction of Rice’s future dripped with vitriol: She’ll return to Stanford, join all the other failed conservative policymakers at the Hoover Institution and “Do some speeches and write a book telling what a wonderful job she did.”

Finally, Brinkley was in a giving mood when it came to biting criticism. Asked how his former paper had handled the lead-up to the Iraq war, he swung for the fences.

“We utterly failed in our coverage of WMD because we had our own WMD named Judith Miller. I’ve known her for 20 years and despised her all that time to today.”

An aside: Two-thirds of the way through Brinkley's speech, I noticed the sickly-sweet odor of alcohol emitted through one's pores along with the San Francisco standbys of grungy clothing and caked-on sweat. I looked behind me and observed a pair of bearded men wearing worn denim jackets and pants and USA eagle hats of the sort one obtains at Walgreen's for two dollars.

If anyone else noticed the two men, it wasn't apparent to me. While the pair may have had a yen for foreign policy, it's likely their interest was far more domestic. Both of them circulated through the wine-and-cheese mixer held after the speech. We exchanged nods and I walked off into the foggy night.

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