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The ventriloquist, the ventriloquist's dummy and SecState Rice


Diplomatic capital shares many characteristics with its more fungible financial cousin. It is invariably less expensive to raise when it is not needed, when the cost of capital is low. Often the act of attempting to raise it under adverse circumstances devalues the applicant, placing it in a less advantaged position. Arbitrarily placing key assets outside a deal or restricting the class of instruments by which one can raise capital can be seen as daft, even specious, and so cause the deal to delay, even collapse.

While SecState Rice's tenure has not been as feckless, even counterproductive, as Karen Hughes' embarrassing effort as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, I am increasingly struck at Rice's failure to acquire and build US diplomatic capital; it is not enough to be a less obdurate face than then SecDef Rumsfeld or less confrontational than VPOTUS, or offer marginally better guidance than did OSD, which was Beltway shorthand for "strong guidance from Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, [and] William Luti."

With each of Rice's missteps or lost opportunities, I vacillate between describing her role as the ventriloquist or the ventriloquist's dummy. I have the rising feeling that she takes the former role outside the administration and the latter role inside it.

I note issues of interest to me in three parts, Flat Wrong, External Ventriloquist and Internal Dummy:

Flat Wrong

While agreeing with Rice's opinion that Rumsfeld was adversely delaying the departure of Jay Garner, sited in Kuwait, to Baghdad, Rice misapplied a lesson from the USSR to Iraq. When she learned that "government workers, including oil workers, could not be found," she concluded that there "was a brittleness in the country but:

As a Soviet expert she had studied what happens to totalitarian systems when they collapse. She recalled reading about the 1953 death of Joseph Stalin. For five weeks the Soviet Union ceased to function. Nobody could do anything because everybody counted on direction from the very top. Iraq seemed to have cratered in the same way or worse. But history predicted it would be temporary. In the end, she was confident, order would reassert itself, as had happened in the old USSR.

But Iraq was not the USSR; its conditions were vastly different and order did not reassert itself. Brent Scowcroft diplomatically notes that Rice's "expertise is in the former Soviet Union and Europe. Less on the Middle East." Subsequent US actions only made the problem worse, effectively guaranteeing that order was unattainable.

Rice fell victim to a keystone of executive profiling, the concept of successfully revisiting a previous decision area. Executive profiling shows that individuals have a 95% chance of repeating successful behavior and avoiding unsuccessful behavior even if the conditions surrounding the decision are different. The emotional pull of repeating the good feeling and avoiding the bad feeling short-circuits the analytic process.

Compounding this propensity, I believe that Rice is trapped in an anti-Soviet viewpoint; many of her analogies continue to spring from that period. While she has accomplished much, in a study of "seventeen national security advisers serving ten American presidents," Rice was not "a towering academic figure... Also a career academic administrator, Rice did little serious research after publishing her dissertation."

While the feds had long used profiling to slot Politburo members, Strategic Rocket Corps (SRC) commanders and boomer (ballistic missile submarine) captains into gaming scenarios, Cheryl A. Condon (married name Poirer) was, to my knowledge, the first to commercialize the process. Her boss, Jan Herring, connected Cheryl to Dr. Jerrold Post, founder of the CIA's psychological profiling unit (Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior) and creator of 'political psychological profiling.'

As an aside, in 1993, Cheryl told me that she'd just done a profile on IBM's Lou Gerstner and her research turned up a remarkable, earlier document in which "you could do a global-search-and-replace on Amex with IBM." Given the 95+% probability of a person repeating successful behavior, the article's profile of Gerstner's plans at Amex TRS was a strong indicator of his future actions at IBM. Executive profiling has many benefits, e.g., it repeatedly shows that the use of warfighting and sports analogies marks linear, sequential thinking, whereas parallel, concurrent thinking is often marked by the use of biologic, organic analogies. Organizations as well as individuals can be profiled. Cheryl favored Bridges' The Character of Organizations to address the problem.

BREAKING RANKS does a nice job in summarizing Rice's break from the Bush41 advisors, her estrangement from her mentor, Scowcroft (who "found her bright—"brighter than I was"—and personable, and he brought her all the way inside, to the Bush family circle"), and her conversion to a Bush43 mindset ("many of her ex-colleagues from the [Bush41] National Security Council say that it is rooted in her Christian faith, which leads her to see the world in moralistic terms, much as the President does"). Your mileage may vary, but as a proponent of Scowcroft, Rice's descent makes sad reading. Contrast that to Scowcroft and Berger's In the Wake of War.

Rice was "concerned," but insufficiently critical as "the signs of chaos increased in 2003 and 2004." Rice "never lost faith" but I think it applicable that both she and POTUS were thinking 'nation state' instead of 'unwound tribal and sectarian partisanship', i.e., they had the wrong state paradigm despite the recent lessons of Bosnia and Kosovo:

IN THE RARE MOMENTS Rice had time to read, she read about the Founding Fathers to remind herself that the United States of America should never have come into being. In particular, she was affected by David McCullough's 1776, about the darkest times of the American Revolution… [Bush43 asked Andrew Card:] Where's the leader? Where's George Washington? Where's Thomas Jefferson? Where's John Adams, for crying out loud?...

Rice maintained to colleagues that neither she nor the president felt any equivalent distress. "Tough sledding," she said, but Bush had told her, "I see the path on Iraq."

Late in 2005 in the face of now modestly bipartisan criticism, Rice was still offering comments such as "we have made significant progress" to senators.

External Ventriloquist

This author was especially annoyed at Rice's recent news briefing that "emphasized the positive in a year that saw the radical Islamic groups Hamas and Hezbollah gain strength in the region, Iran shrug off international demands to suspend its nuclear program, and Iraq teeter on the edge of civil war." (The only amendment that I'd make to this is that Iraq is already in a state of civil war. See Tangible statistical evidence of the long denied civil war in Iraq and Is it a civil war, or isn’t it?) She attributed the setbacks to "counterrevolutionary forces" seeking to undo U.S. success in the region."

What success? The attending reporters apparently didn't ask.

Only a listener with no memory of the postwar historical record, or blighted by unbounded credulity, would agree with this Rice analogy:

Rice, who frequently makes historical analogies, likened the current period to the challenges faced by the United States after the end of World War II. "Go back and put yourself in that time," she said. There were "things that could have gone very badly and thrown the whole beginning of the Cold War in a completely different direction," she said, ticking off the gains made by French communists, the civil war in Greece, the victory of Chinese communists and other setbacks. "Does it look that much better than it looks now in the Middle East? I don't think so," Rice said.

No, it does look better then than it does today. Yes, the threats Rice listed were real enough, but she omits the very different conditions that allowed us to deal with them. Here are a few off the top:

  • The US had emerged from WWII victorious, a recognized global protector against National Socialism, Fascism and the Imperial Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere
  • Leaving aside French annoyance at being marginalized, the US was the recognized first among equals in the West
  • We remembered that we had allies, and we used them to good effect
  • The UN was our creation and it largely did our bidding, subject to periodic Soviet threat of veto
  • The "China" in that UN was the Republic of Taiwan
  • We were feared by some but respected by more
  • Our adversaries were a limited number of identifiable, targetable state actors
  • Occupied Germany, Japan and Italy were quiet and absent of asymmetrical nonstate actors (Rice is wrong about the German "Werewolves" and should know better)
  • Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons production were only within the purview of state actors
  • Asymmetrical actors could not achieve force parity against the military forces of principal state actors
  • We had a diplomacy grounded in realism, not a neocon Wolkenkuckucksheim
  • We had diplomats seemingly everywhere; we had ground truth - humint - not yet narrowed by 'national technical means of collection'
  • We had not yet gelded our ability for covert operations and the collateral intel it brings (referring to the impacts of the Church Committee and the Levi Guidelines)
  • The US was now a global power supplanting the UK as the principal naval power; force projection was relatively unconstrained
  • We had a million man plus military under arms
  • We had the draft to replenish our manpower needs and our citizens were accustomed to its call
  • The Democratic Party was the "Fighting Democrats" of Roosevelt and Truman
  • The US and the UK owned Middle East and Persian littoral petroleum production; North American and Venezuelan production was still rising
  • Problems in oil producing states were limited to exploration, lifting, refining and transport; terrorist threats were largely nonexistent
  • The US economy was rapidly expanding due to pent-up postwar demand and Marshall Plan exports; we could fund many efforts and fight a multifront war - and that included timely replenishment of men and materiel.
  • China did not exist as a global competitor in diplomatic, military and resource spheres
  • We were not isolated diplomatically; we understood the value of talking to our adversaries, if nothing else to gain intelligence

Rice has been a point person for the administration's "Hear No Evil" approach to diplomacy in which we refuse to talk to confrontation states, a policy that denies us so much advantage that it is remarkable that we have to urge our administration to do so. I urge readers to James Dobbins on correcting US missteps in vision and implementation in the Middle East, then the op-ed pair by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann (here and here) that form an extension on Dobbins and flag what can charitably be called policy censorship, and finally Leverett's earlier Dealing with Tehran: Assessing U.S. Diplomatic Options Toward Iran, that contains approved text that describing the areas censored in the later work.

If you traverse this material as opposed to, say, Fox News, you will wonder how reporters, even lay listeners, give Rice a free pass in refusing to consider talks with either Iran or Syria for fear of US interests being linked to Iranian or Syrian national interests. This writer thinks it smacks of 'What's mine is mine, and what's yours is negotiable.' I got that from the Soviets and didn't like it. Why would the Iranians or Syrians think any better of it?

But if you read Ron Suskind's The Tyrant Who Came In From the Cold, the back story of covert conversations between Ben Bonk, a career CIA operative and a deputy director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorist Center, and Musa Kousa, a deputy head of Libyan intelligence and a planner of both the PanAm Lockerbie and UTA 772 bombings, beginning with their mutual interest, even passion, of Michigan State University (MSU) basketball, you might want to shout at Rice, how dare you not talk. The Bonk-Kousa discussions led to Kappes-Gadhafi talks that dealt equally with matters of substance and concrete measures to allow all sides to "save face." All impossible unless you talk.

Libya is also an example of the damage and delay that preconditions bring to the diplomatic process. While the US would achieve its first success in perception management, that Libyan dismantling of its WMD capability was tangible evidence of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the reality was different:

Iraq may have been a modest contributing factor, [to the many drivers already propelling Gadhafi to the bargaining table, but if the US] hadn’t long insisted that the financial settlement be completed before getting to disarmament, Gadhafi might have made this move years ago.

Rice appears to evince a cavalier attitude common to neocons whereby destabilizing changes or shocks can be initiated without any reasonable analysis of consequences. The concept that the Middle East had so stagnated that only external "shocks" could prevent continued regional stagnation is called "constructive instability." As late as November 2006, Rice could answer a question about Iraq being a "moment of crisis":

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think it's a moment of challenge, it's a moment of testing and it's a moment also of enormous opportunity -- big historical changes like the ones that are happening now, particularly in this region… Look, these are huge changes in a region that's -- that the very stagnation in this region -- people call it stability, I call it stagnation -- the stagnation in this region had produced a circumstance in which the -- an al-Qaida and extremist forces were growing and growing and growing unchallenged really by healthy moderate political forces in places like Iraq and like the Palestinian territories. Those forces are now coming into their own. Yes, they have determined enemies. Yes, we are seeing a clarifying moment between extremism and moderation. That is bound to be difficult.

This kind of talk leaves me feeling that there is no understanding of, or interest in, the consequences of blowback, the secondary and tertiary effects on today's decisions.

Internal Dummy

When Larry Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff from 2002-2005, uncloaked in his 19 October, 2005, speech and Q&A at NAF, it was "clear that Wilkerson's Axis of Evil is Cheney and Rumsfeld whom he has dubbed a cabal (also here) so strong that it rolled over an "extremely weak" Rice [first as national security advisor and then at SecState] and dominated US policy to the exclusion of other federal departments, not the least of which was State." Wilkerson was not alone in making the case that Rice "made a decision that she would side with the president to build her intimacy with the president," "dropping her role as honest broker," and so adding to the "dysfunctionality" of her role as national security advisor.

Rice's reticence had been flagged far earlier in 2003 around the creation of the White House Iraq Stabilization Group. Although the press had a certain "infatuation" with Rice, "the very need to restate her formal duties in an interagency memo confirms that she has failed to perform the most basic functions of a national security adviser":

Rather than coordinate the positions of the State and Defense departments, Rice has been overpowered by them. On Iran, North Korea, the United Nations, and Iraq, the United States has not one, but two policies. As a result, issues that normally would be settled far down the bureaucratic food chain often go unresolved until they capture the attention of cabinet-rank officials in principals' meetings. And, even then, administration officials claim that Secretary of State Colin Powell and Rumsfeld routinely revert to their respective and diametrically opposed positions as soon as they walk out the door. Compounding the problem has been Rice's reluctance to delegate to NSC staff members, and her apparent inability to balance her role as the president's adviser with her role as interagency referee. No doubt, the statures of Powell and Rumsfeld make her task more difficult. And, no doubt, when it comes to the particulars of postwar Iraq, the president may not evince much in the way of firmly-held convictions. Still, Rice has been on the job for nearly three years.

Yes, Rice's former counselor, Philip Zelikow, produced position papers for Rice "that often depart sharply from the Bush administration’s current line"; e.g. describing "the potential for Iraq to become a "catastrophic failure," calling for changes in detention policy that State felt was doing "tremendous harm" to the US, proposing "new diplomatic initiatives" to the DPRK and the Middle East, etc. The more I read about these protected counter-administration concepts, the more I long to see more effect from them in Rice's internal efforts.

ADDENDUM: A very skilled inside-the-beltway player has suggested this note be summed as "Infernal dummy equals internal Rummy".

What We Wanted to Tell You About Iran
Op-Ed Contributors
New York Times
Published: December 22, 2006

Redacted Version of Original Op-Ed
Op-Ed Contributors
New York Times
December 22, 2006

Secretary of State Rice Places Conditions on Iran, Syria for Talks
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice re-asserts President Bush's need to seek input on Iraq strategy from a variety of sources beyond the Iraq Study Group and explains the president's hesitation to engage in talks with Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria.
Originally Aired: December 21, 2006

Rice Stresses the Positive Amid Mideast Setbacks
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post
December 20, 2006

Dealing with Tehran: Assessing U.S. Diplomatic Options Toward Iran
Flynt Leverett
Century Foundation
Dec. 4, 2006

More on Condi's Instability Fetish
Posted by Shadi Hamid
Democracy Arsenal
Security and Peace Initiative is a joint initiative of the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.
December 04, 2006

Interview With Brian Williams of NBC News
Secretary Condoleezza Rice
US Department of State
Dead Sea, Jordan
November 30, 2006

Did the Bush Administration Take History into Account Before Attacking Iraq? What Woodward's Book Suggests
By HNN Staff
History News Network, GMU

Rice’s Counselor Gives Advice Others May Not Want to Hear
New York Times
October 28, 2006

The Tyrant Who Came In From the Cold
Gadhafi gave up his WMDs not because we scared him, but because we talked to him.
By Ron Suskind
Washington Monthly
October 2006

Is it a civil war, or isn’t it?
By Monica Duffy Toft
Nieman Watchdog ASK THIS
July 28, 2006

Former Powell Aide Says Bush Policy Is Run by 'Cabal'
New York Times
October 21, 2005

Colonel Finally Saw Whites of Their Eyes
By Dana Milbank
Washington Post
October 20, 2005

Moderated by Steven Clemons, Director, American Strategy Program
New America Foundation
American Strategy Program
Policy Forum
Transcript by: Federal News Service, Washington, D.C.
Entire talk with Q&A is 95:59.

In the Wake of War
Getting Serious about Nation-Building
Brent Scowcroft & Samuel R. Berger
Number 81, Fall 2005

The Academic Elite Goes to Washington, and to War
Critics of the academy have lambasted faculty doves. History shows that academia has roosted a flock of hawks.
By Lionel Lewis
January-February 2005, Classroom Cultures

Failing Upward
by Lawrence F. Kaplan
TNR Online
Post date 10.09.03

The psychological assessment of political leaders: with profiles of Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton
Jerrold M. Post
University of Michigan Press
ISBN-10: 0-472-06838-5 (Paper); 0-472-09838-1 (Cloth)

Psychology and the CIA: Leaders on the Couch
Thomas Omestad
Foreign Policy, No. 95 (Summer, 1994), pp. 104-122

Personality Intelligence: Anticipating Your Competitor’s Decisions
Cheryl Poirer
Competitive Intelligence Review 3(3,4): 35-37, 1993

Personality Intelligence: Anticipating Your Competitor’s Next Move
Cheryl A. Poirer
Manage, 44(4): 22-24, 1993

The Character of Organizations; Using Jungian Type in Organizational Development
by William Bridges
Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc.
ISBN-10: 0891060529, ISBN-13: 978-0891060529
September 1992

Profiling Rival Decision Makers
By Walter D. Barndt, Jr.
The Journal of Business Strategy 12(1): 8-11, 1991

Contained in:
The Demand Side of Competitive Intelligence: The Missing Link
By Walter D. Barndt, Jr.
SCIP, ISBN-10: 0962124168
July 1, 1997

Lou Gerstner
By John J. Kao
Harvard Business School
Case (Field) 9-485-176
Publication Date: Apr 22, 1985, Revised: Nov 5, 1987

Gordon Housworth

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