July 28, 2004

Condoleezza Rice: Blindsided or Blind?

The latest Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists features a lengthy profile of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The article isn't the most smoothly written, but it's loaded with fun facts--Rice's mother taught baseball great Willie Mays in high school, for example, a fact that Rice used to her advantage in establishing a sense of rapport with George W. Bush. The magazine's editors sum up the article nicely in the following sentence: "Highly qualified but strangely inattentive, Condoleezza Rice has missed the signs of the Soviet collapse, the importance of terrorism before 9/11, and more."

The Bulletin's profile isn't a bad introduction to Rice's background and life story, but I was a little disappointed by it. First, I found some of the article's omissions a bit odd: the piece describes in some detail the background of Josef Korbel, Rice's college mentor, but never mentions that he was the father of Madeleine Albright. (This would have given the author a great opportunity to contrast the two women's foreign policies.) Second, and more importantly, I'd love to read a more nuanced discussion of Rice's academic work and its relationship to the policies she's helped to devise.

Rice's scholarship, I'd argue, is an important but under-examined part of her public persona: her supporters often point to her academic work as evidence that she's an unusually highly qualified government official, but I get the sense that Rice's reputation as a scholar is far higher in the media than it is in academia and I'd love to read a detailed analysis of her scholarship by someone who knows her work. The closest I've come to finding such an assessment was a review mentioned in this column, written by the U.S. historian James McPherson, that touches on Rice's use of the disparaging phrase "revisionist history":

The judgmental tone of Rice's derogatory reference to "revisionist historians" brings to mind a review of her book The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army, 19481983, in the December 1985 issue of the American Historical Review (p. 1236) when she was an assistant professor at Stanford. The reviewer claimed that Rice "frequently does not sift facts from propaganda and valid information from disinformation or misinformation." In addition, according to the reviewer, she "passes judgments and expresses opinions without adequate knowledge of the facts" and her "writing abounds with meaningless phrases." I cannot testify for or against the accuracy and fairness of this review. But I am tempted to wonder, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, whether we are experiencing deja vu all over again.

I've hunted down the review McPherson mentions, which sounds quite reasonable to a non-specialist like me. (It makes one obvious mistake--referring to Rice as a man--but this seems like a trivial error, given her unusual name and her low profile at the time.) Like McPherson, I'm not knowledgeable enough about Czechoslovakian history or about Rice's book to vouch for the review's accuracy, but it rings true nonetheless. I've also heard criticism of her more recent book , a volume on German reunification she co-wrote with Philip Zelikow: I've been told that it over-emphasizes the U.S. role in German unification and is shallow in its use of German and Soviet sources. (To be fair, I've never read the book and I've also seen it described as the definitive work on the subject.)

Nevertheless, I don't think it would be easy to analyze the relationship between Rice's politics and her academic work, and I'm a little wary of claims that Rice "missed the signs of the Soviet collapse." The Bulletin article shows that Rice's analysis of the Soviet Union wasn't always the most far-sighted, but I would have liked a more nuanced discussion of how her views differed from those of other government officials and academics. The collapse of the U.S.S.R. wasn't inevitable in 1989, when Rice joined the National Security Council staff, and I'm always skeptical when academics are criticized for failing to predict its demise. (The few people who expected the U.S.S.R. to fall apart before Gorbachev's reforms were underway are often treated as prophets, but their analysis was more often based on wishful thinking than on nuanced policy analysis.) In particular, there's a real temptation to assume that people whose conclusions turned about to be wrong were incompetent or silly; in serious scholarship, however, the way someone thinks and works can sometimes be as important as his or her final conclusions. Moreover, as scholars like Fred Greenstein have shown, presidential decision-making is sometimes more complicated than it appeared at the time.

The review mentioned above suggests that Rice's first book was hurt by shallow thinking and a questionable methodology, though I have no idea whether it was representative of her work as a whole. The Bulletin article, moreover, suggests that even before 9/11, the Bush administration's foreign policy was a "policy of fixed ideas." It's tempting, then, to leap to the conclusion that bad scholars make bad policy-makers, but I'm not comfortable drawing such a conclusion without more evidence. (I'm not even sure it's fair or reasonable to consider academic work and policy work by the same standards, though perhaps that's a topic for another day; at the same time, I worry that analysts of Rice's scholarship will be too quick to find problems with it that seem reminiscent of her political failings.) Leaping from some suggestive data to a firm final conclusion, after all, is just the kind of criticism that's often made of people like Rice.

Posted by Ed at July 28, 2004 03:30 PM

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Posted by: lolita at January 19, 2005 08:54 PM
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