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Interview on NBC's Meet the Press with David Gregory

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Washington, DC
December 21, 2008

QUESTION: But first, we welcome back the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for her 20th appearance on this program over the past eight years. Thank you for being willing to come on the program and explain your views all these times.

SECRETARY RICE: It’s a pleasure to be with you, David.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SECRETARY RICE: And congratulations on taking over the post.

QUESTION: Thank you. And I appreciate you being here.

I wanted to go back to the beginning of this Administration’s foreign policy. And we took a look at the presidential debate back in October of 2000. Then-Governor Bush was asked how people of the world should look at the United States, and here’s what he had to say: “It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.”

Eight years later – seven years later after that, do you think that the world views the United States as a humble nation?

SECRETARY RICE: I certainly think the United States views the – that the world views the United States as a place to be respected. All over the world, David, our values are respected, who we are, a place that you can come and come from modest circumstances to great things. That’s respected.

What we’ve done hasn’t always been liked or popular; but if you look at some of the most populous places in the world – China, India – the United States is not only respected, but in fact, popular. So yes, there are some places that have had real quarrels with our policies, but I think the United States is very well respected worldwide.

QUESTION: A lot changed, obviously, after that debate; 9/11, principally. But even in the course of that, do you think that the President pursued a humble foreign policy, as he said he would, as he said it was important for the United States to?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think it’s very humble to believe that there is no man, woman, or child who should live in tyranny; that people who say, well, maybe Arabs just aren’t ready for democracy, or maybe Africans just are going to have corrupt governments, that seems to me arrogant. To say that those people deserve the same life that we have, the same freedoms that we have, that seems to me humble.

I think it’s humble to say that the United States, which has been given so much, should give back, and to launch the largest health program in history, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or to quadruple foreign assistance to Africa, or to double it to Latin America. I think these are the hallmarks of a humble policy. But popular? Not always.

QUESTION: What have you learned in the course of your time both as National Security Advisor and now Secretary of State about the limits of America’s power, both militarily and diplomatically?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, America cannot do most of what needs to be done alone. You need friends. And we have good friends around the world. We have friends with whom we share values in Europe and Asia, thanks to the forward march of democracy, in Latin America, in Africa, and increasingly in the Middle East.

But multilateral diplomacy is hard. It’s slower. It’s tougher. It’s a bigger slog. I’ve learned, too, that sometimes the things you’d most like to do something about, you really have difficulty unless the international community really mobilizes. David, one of the real regrets I’ve had is that we haven’t been able to do something about Sudan. I mean, we’ve tried to ameliorate the humanitarian --

QUESTION: Genocide in Darfur.

SECRETARY RICE: Yeah, exactly. The horrible lives that the people of Darfur are living. The horrible tragedy that is unfolding there.

Now, it’s true we’ve been able to do a lot about the humanitarian situation. We’ve even been able to support getting some peacekeepers onto the ground. And where there are peacekeepers, there’s less violence. But we could have done so much more had there --

QUESTION: Why didn’t we act unilaterally?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, because acting unilaterally in an Arab country – or in a Muslim country that is that complex, that far away, really did not seem to be an option. The President considered it. He thought about it. He thought about what we could do unilaterally. But in fact, instead, we’ve tried to mobilize the international community and international opinion. And frankly, given that just a couple of years ago at the UN the leaders of the world stood up and said we have a responsibility to protect if a government will not protect its own people, and then we’ve had trouble getting anybody to do anything about it. The United States has, by the way, imposed unilateral sanctions in Sudan. We have been the country that’s been the most active in resisting calls to interfere with the International Criminal Court investigation of the leadership there, despite the fact that we’re not members of the International Criminal Court. So I think we’ve done a lot unilaterally, but we could have done a lot more if the international community were better mobilized.

QUESTION: Isn’t it amazing, the last 16 years of American leadership, two presidents, two big regrets stand out: Rwanda and Darfur; the failure to prevent and protect innocent people from genocide?

SECRETARY RICE: Yes, although I will say that we’ve also been engaged in activities that have protected innocent people. Look at Saddam Hussein’s record of, really, genocide inside of Iraq, what he did to Shia populations, to Kurdish populations, actually using weapons of mass destruction. Look at what the Taliban did to populations in Afghanistan. And so in those circumstances where the marriage of our values and our security interests has put us forward in a more active military way, we have tried to protect innocent people. But yes, it’s really not a very good sign for the international community and it does not reflect well on the Security Council --

QUESTION: And that all of this happened on the continent of Africa, whether it’s --

SECRETARY RICE: Well, and that is all happened on the continent of Africa. I was just at the UN last week. We talked about Zimbabwe. This is another circumstance in which the international community, most of it, including by the way several African states – Bostswana, the leadership of Kenya and others – are saying that the regime of Robert Mugabe has got to go. You have a cholera epidemic there. You have a humanitarian disaster in terms of food. You have the goons of the Mugabe regime going around and detaining people and frightening people, terrorizing people. Again, the international community in that circumstance needs to act.

QUESTION: Let’s talk about Iraq. The President’s final visit there as president, happening just a week ago today, and what became obviously the most noticed image of that trip was this press conference with the prime minister and a member of the press throwing his shoes. As the President pointed out, as you’ve pointed out, certainly a sign of freedom in Iraq.


QUESTION: You’ve got a press corps that can speak its mind and act the way it wants to act. I think other people will look at that and say members of this Administration said that America would be greeted as liberators in this country. That was certainly not the case. And now we have, even in a period of relative stability in Iraq, you have this kind of iconic image like this. Do you see it differently?

SECRETARY RICE: I see it very differently. First of all, David, if ever there is a clear reason that history’s judgment and today’s headlines are different is that the focus on something like this, when in fact the President was standing next to a democratically elected prime minister of Iraq who is himself a Shia and at the lead – the head of a multiethnic, multiconfessional democracy in the heart of the Middle East that has just signed a path-breaking Strategic Forces Agreement and Strategic Framework Agreement with the United States, that’s the headline. That someone chose to throw a shoe at the President is what gets reported over and over – I think that’s why history always shows these things differently than today’s news.

QUESTION: Let’s talk about the reflections about the Iraq war. And you had some conversations, as did others in the Administration, with Bob Woodward for his latest book, The War Within.” This is what you had to say, in part: “There is nothing than I’m prouder of than the liberation of Iraq. Did we screw up parts of it? Sure. A lot of it wasn’t handled very well. There are a lot of things, if I could go back and do them differently, I would. But the one thing I would not do differently is we should have liberated Iraq. I’d do it a thousand times again. I’d do it a thousand times again.”

You remain resolute. And yet, in our most recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, people cite Iraq as the biggest failure of the Bush presidency. How do you reconcile those two things?

SECRETARY RICE: I believe that this is one of those long stories in history, not a short one. And if you look at what happened in Iraq, David, you have to look at the effect of a different Iraq on the Middle East. The place from which the 9/11 hijackers came – not Iraq, but the Middle East. The heart of al-Qaida is the Middle East.

And you look at the Iraq that was there prior to the American liberation. It was Saddam Hussein, who had dragged the region into war several times, had dragged us into war, had used weapons of mass destruction, continued to seek them, who was an implacable enemy of the United States, had put 300,000 of his own people in mass graves, and who was a danger to his people, his neighbors, and to us.

Now you have in Iraq, after very difficult circumstances and a difficult journey – and let me say right now, lives lost that will never be brought back, and a road harder than I would have ever thought – but at the end of that road is an Iraq that is a multiconfessional, multiethnic democracy that will not seek weapons of mass destruction, that will be at peace with its neighbors, that is being reintegrated into the Arab world with the Egyptian foreign minister having gone there for the first time in 30 years. I went to Kuwait. I saw the Iraqi flag fly voluntarily in Kuwait.

This Iraq at the center of the Middle East, a powerful Arab state that is a friend of the United States and democratic, is going to make the Middle East a fundamentally different place.

QUESTION: Do you believe that over time, then, the United States will emerge with what will be considered an unambiguous victory in Iraq?

SECRETARY RICE: I believe that it will be, as time goes forward, absolutely clear that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would never have allowed the Middle East to change, and that this Iraq has the potential to anchor a more democratic, a more prosperous and more peaceful Middle East, and by the way, one that is friendly to the United States.

QUESTION: That’s a slightly different issue. Have we won the war in Iraq?

SECRETARY RICE: We’re – I think we’re well on the way to winning it. Iraqis are on the way to winning it. It’s not just what we’ve done. It’s that the Iraqi security forces were able to defeat the special groups and the Iranian-backed militia in Basra in the south. It’s the Iraq security forces that are taking the lead in numerous provinces now as we’ve been able to step back to what the military calls a kind of overwatch position. It’s the Iraqis who have gone to their parliament and been able to pass an elections law and pass a law that brings more and more people into the political system, and it’s the Iraqis that have been able, despite enormous pressure from Iran, to sign with us a Status of Forces Agreement and a Strategic Framework Agreement that lays out a long-term relationship between the United States and Iraq.

QUESTION: The next administration and others will want to examine what went wrong internally in the lead-up to the war. And again, Bob Woodward in his latest book has written about some of the disagreements even in the run-up to the surge. And he wrote this on the issue of complaints, talking about you: “Condoleezza Rice never brought her complaints directly to the President for two reasons. First, she was an optimist, as was the President. ‘Everyone has a tendency toward optimism,’ she said. In fact, the President almost demanded optimism. He didn’t like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt. Second, Rice claimed that as Secretary of State she didn’t feel it was appropriate to criticize then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld or General Casey, who of course oversaw U.S. troops in Iraq, to the President.”

What you’re describing here, or what Bob Woodward is describing talking to you, was a certain amount of pressure about what to bring to the President. Did that make it hard for you – some of the things that he demanded?

SECRETARY RICE: Let me put that in my own words, because the only thing that’s a quote there is that the President demanded optimism. And the President did demand that we all remain focused on the goal and that we not give way everyday to the kind of pessimism that keeps you from dealing with the problems that you face. But the President never demanded, nor did I give him, a ban on bad news or a ban on criticism. I would go to the President frequently and say, “Mr. President, this isn’t working or that isn’t working.” I came back from Iraq in October of 2006, and I told him, I said, “Mr. President, the fabric of this society is rending.” And I had had a conversation with each of the Iraqi leaders, and I told them, I said, “The way that you’re behaving now, this sectarian behavior, you’re going to all be swinging from lampposts in six months.” I told the President that. So I was not afraid to the give the President bad news.

But when you, on a daily basis, give in to pessimism or hand-wringing, you’re simply not going to face the problems and try to deal with them.

QUESTION: So as you look forward though, if you were giving your successor advice, where is that line between if you want to – you’re serving a president who does demand optimism, who doesn't want hand-wringing, between that and look, Mr. President, you’ve got to realize – you can’t be stubborn about this, we have to change course – where’s the line?

SECRETARY RICE: And it’s not – first of all, it’s not stubbornness. The President himself said many, many times – I remember shortly before the surge, someone was asking him about the polls about Iraq. And he said, “Count me among those who are not satisfied, on Iraq.” So this President wasn’t wearing rose-colored glasses. He did believe that if we righted the ship, in a sense, that our values were going to triumph, because he believes very strongly in the force of freedom.

Do you know, in those difficult days, David, I would always remind myself not that we – that I needed to take good news to the President, but that I needed to take him my honest assessment of what I thought was going on and what we could do about it. I do realize, in history’s great sweep, though, that when you look at, for instance, where I was when I came here the last time to participate in the unification of Germany and the liberation of Eastern Europe and the collapse of Soviet Union, that in 1947 or 1948, if you had said that that was going to be the outcome 50 years later, someone would have had you committed.

And therefore, I do recognize that history’s long arc is different than today’s headlines. You do have to keep in mind as you’re going through extraordinarily difficult circumstances that if you stay true to your values, if you stay true to your principles, if you believe in these values, then you can work in that context to right policies that may not be working. And this President, against a lot of odds, went with a surge of our forces, not just a surge of our forces, a surge of our civilian presence. The State Department put officers, diplomats, and aid workers in the field in tough places like Anbar and hard cities of Sadr City and in the south. That kind of effort doesn't come from a rose-colored view that somehow everything is going right, but it does come from a belief that Iraq was too important to lose.

QUESTION: Let me talk about your successor a little bit, Hillary Clinton, and the news this week that her husband, the former president, released contributors to his global initiative, to his foundation. A lot of questions about how that’s going to be managed if he still has a big role around the world.

In effect, if she’s Secretary of State with a former president as a husband, is foreign policy going to have two-for-one?

SECRETARY RICE: No, look, it’s a unique situation. I think we all see that it’s unique. But my successor, Hillary Clinton, is an extremely talented woman. She is a woman of integrity. She believes in this country deeply. We’ve already had a couple of conversations. I know her from the time she brought her freshman daughter to Stanford for the first time when I was Provost. And she’s going to do this very well.

QUESTION: So you don’t think the former president’s profile on the world stage will be a problem?

SECRETARY RICE: I also know former President Clinton, and I have to say right here he has always been respectful of our role, of the President, me. He’s been helpful. And I’m sure they’ll work it out. It’s up to them and President Obama as to how that goes.

QUESTION: Who better to span the world with here in our remaining time, and I’d like to hopscotch around the globe a little bit to talk about some of the challenges that this new president is going to face. Let’s talk about North Korea. A lot of the headlines this week about those talks breaking down in order to get the North Koreans to really back off the pursuit of a nuclear program.

The Wall Street Journal was critical in an editorial this week of your approach on all of this, writing the following: “The North has never kept a commitment, verbal or written. Its negotiating habit is to make promises to win concessions, then renege on those promises and saber-rattle until the U.S. offers further concessions. Ms. Rice recently said the only alternative to her Pyongyang policy was short-term regime change, which is a classic false dilemma. Her failure, and Mr. Bush’s, was putting the appearance of diplomatic progress above genuine disarmament.”

You actually joked this week during an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations that nobody was trusting of the North Koreans, that you’d have to be an idiot to trust the North Koreans.


QUESTION: And yet, that’s the criticism, that this Administration did trust too much.

SECRETARY RICE: No, and of course we didn’t trust them. What we are negotiating is a verification protocol because nobody does trust them. And in fact, if you look at the agreement that was signed in September of 2005, it committed the North to denuclearization within a context of the Six Parties. That means Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea are all at the table to ensure that these commitments are met.

Now, step by step, we’ve been going through those commitments, and we have been responding to meet our obligations when the North goes forward with its obligations. So when they shut down the reactor, we met some of our small obligations in terms of fuel oil delivery. And they did shut down the reactor. There hasn’t been any more plutonium made since September of 2005. Now, when they – as the North is wont to do, when they tested a missile in July of 2006, and in October of 2006 set off a crude nuclear device, we went back to the other five. I was on the phone with them, David, within hours, and by the end of the week we had a Chapter 7 Security Council resolution, sanctions, and constraints on the North Koreans, signed on by the Chinese. That’s extraordinary.

Then, after that when the North came back and said all right, we’re ready to disable our reactor, it’s now shut down, we’re going to start to disable it, we agreed disabling plus a declaration from them about their further nuclear programs, and then more assistance from us, and they did begin to disable. They did blow up the cooling tower. They did really disable certain elements of their nuclear system on the plutonium side. And we delivered.

Then it came the matter of verification. And we have about 80 percent of the verification protocol agreed with the North – things like interviews with scientists, the right to go and ask questions and probe concerning various facilities, the right to look at operations records, to look at production records. We have 18,000 documents in our possession. What the North wouldn't do is go the last 20 percent, which is to clarify some of the elements of scientific procedures that might be used to sample the soil.

So a lot has been achieved here. I think more will be achieved. But it’s really only going to be achieved in the context of the Six Parties, because if you don’t have China and South Korea and Russia and Japan at the table too, then the North can play the game that they used to play of getting benefits from other parts of the international community and refusing to carry forward on its obligations.

QUESTION: Quickly, let me try to get to Iran as well. The President said in the course of his tenure he would not tolerate a nuclear Iran. The reality is that when you came into office, Iran was in something of a box. You leave office, Iran is resurgent: outsized influence in Iraq, outsized influence elsewhere in the Middle East, including in the West Bank and with groups like Hamas scuttling efforts between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is not a reality that you anticipated or wanted.

SECRETARY RICE: No, actually, David, I’d put it very differently. When we came into office, apparently, no one believed that Iran really wanted to seek a nuclear weapon, and so there wasn’t an international coalition that had voted four Security Council resolutions demanding that the Iranians stop reprocessing and enrichment. There wasn’t an international community that has pulled out of Iran because of – in terms of investment because of the risk and because of reputational risk. There wasn’t an international community that was standing firm as the Gulf Cooperation Council, what the Arab states did the other day in a meeting with the so-called P-5+1, the states that are negotiating with Iran, to say we demand that you deal both with Iran’s hegemonistic behavior and with their nuclear program.

Finally, let me just say a word about Iran and Iraq. Yes, Iran will have influence. They’re a neighbor. But Iran was unable to stop this SOFA from going forward, and they pulled out all the stops. That shows --

QUESTION: The agreement to withdraw from Iraq?

SECRETARY RICE: The agreement with the United States. This shows that the Iraqis are going to be independent, they are going to defend their interests, and they are going to be a bulwark against undue Iranian influence in the region.

QUESTION: I want to ask you about this moment politically in our country. I know the President spoke to you on election night when the President-elect was elected and when there was this outpouring of emotion in Grant Park, and frankly across the country.


QUESTION: What did you feel that night, and what did you share with him about the importance of that moment?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, we saw it similarly, interestingly. For me, of course, as an African American, it’s extraordinary. I was born in segregated Birmingham, Alabama. I didn’t have a white classmate till we moved to Denver. And to see an African American elected president means that this country is really finally coming full circle from the birth defect of slavery. I’m proud to think that President Bush appointed back-to-back African American Secretaries of State. That was extraordinary. And so we’ve been on this journey, but what happened on that night was really quite something. And I also know the President-elect. He was on my committee, the Committee on – the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he’s a quite extraordinary man. But an incredible day for America.

QUESTION: I know you’re a proud Republican, but were you rooting for Barack Obama?

SECRETARY RICE: Now, David, you know I’m Secretary of State so I don’t talk about my partisan or nonpartisan beliefs. But I think every American was rooting for the kind of election that we had, one in which when it was over the defeated candidate, John McCain, gave one of the most exceptional concession speeches, one in which we showed that this country does this better than any country in the world, one in which we’re making a completely smooth transition because President Bush wants it to be that way, with our country in a time of war and a time of economic difficulty.

What I’ve heard around the world is, yes, there’s great joy that a minority, an African American, has been elected. But there’s also just great admiration and almost a sense that it’s quite remarkable that America does what it does this way.

QUESTION: What’s next for Condoleezza Rice?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I’ll go back west of the Mississippi, where I belong, to California. And I’m going to go back to Stanford and the Hoover Institution. I want to write a book. Obviously, I’ll write a book on foreign policy. It’s been an incredible time. And I think we’ve left a lot of places in much better shape, and I want to write about the post-9/11 end of our innocence in foreign policy.

I also want to write a book about my parents. My parents were incredible. You know, they probably never made more than $60,000 between them. They were – my father a high school guidance counselor, later a university administrator; my mother, a teacher. But they recognized the value of education and they did everything they could to make sure I had every opportunity and made enormous sacrifices. And I want that to be known.

But most importantly, as Secretary of State – and it’s been an enormous honor to represent this great country that I love to much – I have really seen that our great strengths are in the ability of people to reach their potential here, whether immigrants come here and reach their potential, or whether we continue to believe, as Americans do, that it doesn't matter where you came from, it matters where you’re going. We can’t live true to that set of values unless our educational system is strong.

And so as early as 1992, David, I got involved in K-12 educational issues for underprivileged kids. I really believe that if we don’t get that right, we will not compete because we won’t believe that our people can compete and we’ll turn inward. We won’t lead. That will be bad for the world.

But most importantly, in a multiethnic democracy, where we’re not bound by blood, we’re not bound by religion, we’re not bound by nationality, we’re bound by an idea. And that idea is that every American can come from humble circumstances and do great things. And as an educator and Secretary of State, I want to go make sure that’s true.

QUESTION: Well, Secretary Rice, we certainly hope you’ll come back with your books to talk about them. Thank you for being here, and thank you for your public service.

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you very much, David.


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