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Condoleezza Rice Interview With Reader's Digest

Interview by William P. Beaman and Conrad Kiechel of Reader's Digest

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Washington, DC
July 10, 2006

(5:00 p.m. EDT)

MR. BEAMAN: Well, Madame Secretary, as you know, we're coming up on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. And for so many people, it was a trauma not only in the sense of what happened to the nation and how it engulfed us in a global war on terror, but there was a personal reaction to it and a lot of people say it was like walking through a curtain, that nothing was quite the same afterwards.

On a personal level, to start, how did 9/11 affect you and change you?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, it certainly had an enormous impact on me. I'll never forget the day. I think that there are few days in American history that every American will remember exactly where they were at the time. And of course, I was National Security Advisor. I talked to the President earlier that morning and then when the first plane flew into the World Trade Center, I called him, we thought it was an accident, and then a second plane and I called him.

And I remember everything from there as a kind of blur, that we were suddenly confronted as a country with the first attack on our territory, really, in our history. Of course, there had been the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, but nothing that was even in the psyche or the memory of Americans. We had come to think of ourselves as an island nation.

And for me, personally, there was a great sense of regret and loss, a great sense of the -- of outrage that these people had, on a fine September day, killed, in cold blood, 3,000 innocent Americans who were just going to work or going into a brokerage firm or working at the Pentagon; a sense that these people were not just trying to terrorize us, they were trying to bring us down, in a sense, because their targets were our financial center and the Pentagon and we know now, probably the Capitol. They went after the symbols of American power.

And as National Security Advisor, a very strong sense of, "Could I have done more," and a real strong commitment to do everything that I could never to let it happen again, if I could do anything never to let that happen again, that we needed to do it.

MR. BEAMAN: As you know, much has been written and spoken about how united we were right after 9/11 and we all know that today, in so many ways, we're divided along partisan lines and along other lines that are somewhat acrimonious and quite acrimonious at times. If you could rewind time, is there something that you might have done or that could have been done that could have maintained and benefited from the unity we had?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think we did benefit from the unity as a country and I still think there's an underlying unity. There's an underlying belief that America suffered a blow that day that it should never have to suffer again. But perhaps we didn't have time to reflect fully on what it was going to require of us as a country.

Fairly soon after Afghanistan, the question really arose; what did 9/11 require of us. Did this mean that we were going to hunt down the al-Qaida as the organization that did that to us; were we going to go through law enforcement, perhaps take care of Afghanistan, perhaps capture Usama bin Laden and then we could return to life as we knew it.

But the President took a different choice, a different road, and a road that I think was absolutely crucial, which was that we had to go at the source of it, the source of this ideology of hatred that had created conditions in the Middle East so malignant that people would fly airplanes into our buildings. And perhaps that's where the split came; some who wanted to deal with al-Qaida as it was on that day and then return to life and those who saw it instead as the struggle of our times, the struggle of the generation to change the very circumstances that created al-Qaida.

Because for those of us who came out on that side of the debate, even if you were able to destroy al-Qaida as an organization, you were still going to have the circumstances that created them and you weren't going to leave a permanent peace to our children and our grandchildren unless you dealt with those circumstances. But dealing with those circumstances is a much longer, much tougher, much more challenging task than simply dealing with al-Qaida. Dealing with al-Qaida is hard enough, but changing the circumstances that produce them is really hard.

I liken it in some ways to what happened in World War II, because after we defeated Adolph Hitler, America didn't think it enough to just defeat Nazism. America thought that it had to leave a stable Europe and that meant a democratic Europe with a democratic Germany at its core. It had to leave a democratic Japan in order to prevent, ever again, the rise of Japanese imperialism.

And so dealing with the immediate threat was not enough and I think that that -- those policies of World War II -- post World War II period clearly proved themselves right, because when we sit with our democratic allies in Germany or our democratic allies in Japan, when we recognize that nobody thinks we're ever going to go to war again on the European continent or that France and Germany are ever going to fight again or that Japan is ever going to be a threat to the region, you recognize the wisdom of dealing with root causes, dealing with circumstances, not just dealing with the immediate task.

MR. BEAMAN: And you're describing, of course, a noble undertaking and a vast undertaking, one that you're saying would benefit us and our allies in the world, obviously, in terms of making a more peaceful world and what not. But there's no denying that the U.S. image has, in terms of polls and societies in Europe and elsewhere has been battered. Is there some strategy you have to burnish that image?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, first, we have to do what's right. And sometimes, doing what's right means doing hard things that people may not agree with.

Was it right to finally deal with the threat of Saddam Hussein, a man who put 300,000 Iraqis into mass graves, who threatened our pilots everyday as they were trying to control no-fly zones to keep him from attacking his neighbors and attacking his people? Was it right to finally deal with him so that you could remove crippling sanctions from the Iraqi people, sanctions that were leading to malnutrition among Iraqi children? Was it right to finally do that so that you could have a different kind of Iraq, also a fierce fighter in the war against terror, rather than a harbor of terrorists, a democratic Iraq, rather than an Iraq that repressed its people?

Some people said no, that was not right. And it has had its cost in terms of American popularity. But I believe firmly that when the history of this period is written and when Iraq is a stable democracy on whom we can rely as a pillar of democracy and stability in that region, people will look back and say, all right, it was the right decision. So some of it is that you just have to recognize that difficult decisions will sometimes be unpopular, but there's more we can do.

We need to have a conversation with the people of the Middle East, not a monologue. We need to increase our exposure to people, particularly young people, and their exposure to us. So we've been very big supporters of exchange programs and university students coming here and university students going there. I think the more that we are clear that we really believe that the people of the Middle East deserve a democratic future, just like all other people around the world -- it's something that American presidents were not willing to say for 60 years. We were only concerned with stability, not with democracy, and we got neither. So there is much that we can do to get our message out.

There are some misconceptions that we can fight against. When I talk to people sometimes, religious people from the Middle East, they seem to believe that Americans are secular and don't believe in family. And I say come to America, there's a church or a synagogue or a mosque on practically every corner and we are a people who are family-oriented and deeply religious. And the wonderful thing is that when you go to communities and you meet Muslim-Americans, they are Americans.

And it isn't a matter of tolerance. Tolerance somehow suggests that you have to tolerate those people or you have to accept them on your own terms. No; America has made its way by being a place where people from many different cultures and many different religious backgrounds join together to make us a vast tapestry of cultures and religions. We don't tolerate each other; we make each other better. And I wish people could see that America and so that's why it's important for people to get here.

MR. BEAMAN: Okay. I'd like to ask you a question about Iran and then I'm going to pass the lapel to my friend, who has --

SECRETARY RICE: All right. (Laughter.)

MR. BEAMAN: -- had to be too silent. In our earlier interview, you were National Security Advisor at the time, you said no one should be willing to tolerate nuclear weapons in Iran. And of course, the President had said we will not tolerate nuclear weapons in Iran. Might this phrase come back to haunt us? Might we have to tolerate a nuclear Iran?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, we don't have to tolerate it, no, of course, not. First of all, we have to work very, very hard and we are working hard and, I would say, effectively to have an international coalition that also won't tolerate a nuclear weapon in Iran. Iran has to be confronted with the fact that it can have a civil nuclear program, but it can't have a nuclear weapon and if it's determined to have a nuclear program that would lead to a nuclear weapon, then it will be isolated from the international community.

We also can make it very clear to Iran that it's never going to benefit from having a nuclear weapon. We're going to defend our allies and defend our interests around the world. So no, I think that that statement and what the President said is absolutely the message that we want to send.

MR. KIECHEL: Madame Secretary, in an earlier interview, also, you once said that you wouldn't miss -- we won't miss a chance, the U.S. Administration, won't miss a chance to build an Iraq that is stable and prosperous, that can be a linchpin for a different kind of Middle East. So our question now is, is our goal still now both stability -- is it stability and prosperity or does it still encompass building a democratic Iraq as well?

SECRETARY RICE: Oh, it absolutely has to encompass a democratic Iraq. One can't exist without the other. I think we've learned over the years that what you get from authoritarianism or dictatorships is that you get a false stability. Perhaps people can't express their differences and so they get subsumed, but they're turning under there. And either you get out and out repression or you get a society in which there are kind of malignancies that eventually spring forth in unhealthy ways, like the development of extremism, because people don't have legitimate political institutions through which to express their differences.

It's really hard in Iraq. You know, every day, I look at the loss of American life and I am absolutely in awe of what our men and women in uniform are doing, what our men and women who are there as diplomats are doing. As civilian personnel from other agencies, they're taking risks every day on behalf of democracy, on behalf of freedom for the Iraqi people and therefore, security, ultimately for us. They're doing it in a way that is wholly selfless because they are, of course, volunteers.

And it's extraordinary, but it's in a long line of noble service that Americans have given to the world, that they gave in World War I. You go to the cemeteries about -- of World War II and the eighteen-year-olds and the nineteen-year-olds that gave their lives. And people who are serving in Iraq or in Afghanistan, for that matter, are in that line of heroes who defended freedom not here on our shores, but to forward defense of freedom so that we don't have more attacks on our own territory.

So I know it's hard and I look at the lives of innocent Iraqis that have been lost, schoolchildren and teachers and brothers and sisters of Iraqi leaders who are assassinated to intimidate those leaders to keep them from being involved in Iraqi politics. And I stand in awe of the fact that 12.5 million of them went to the polls anyway, despite those threats and that intimidation. And what it says to me is that this is hard, but so many things that have been hard have, in the end, been achieved. And then when you look back on them, they look inevitable; oh, of course, that was always going to come out that way.

You know, I spent -- last summer, I read the biographies of the Founding Fathers. And if you read the biographies of Washington or Hamilton or Jefferson, you say to yourself, by all rights, the United States of America should never have come into being. Not only were we taking on the greatest military power of the time, but taking them on with a rag-tag army, a third of which have died from small pox, the Founding Fathers had a tendency to squabble among themselves, and Jefferson and Hamilton weren't particularly great friends. I sometimes wonder if the 24-hour news cycle had been watching the founding of America, if anybody would have ever thought we were going to come into being.

But now you look back on it and it all looks seamless. So, yeah, it's very hard, but we know now that it's worth it and we know, given what happened on 9/ 11, the cost of not completing the job, the cost of leaving failed states like Afghanistan or if we were to leave Iraq prematurely, we know what that cost looks like.

MR. KIECHEL: Just as a quick follow-up on that, if we don't -- if the Iraqi people build democracy but there is not a stable -- or there are not other democratic countries in their own region, can they achieve stability of their own democracy?

SECRETARY RICE: That's a very good question. And I do believe that when Iraq achieves its democracy, it's going to have a huge impact on the rest of the region, because people are going to look around and they're going to say, why not us. Already, if you look in the region, Kuwait -- in Kuwait, women voted for the first time, women ran for office for the first time. You look at Egypt; they've had multi-candidate elections for the first time. I know their parliamentary elections did not meet the standards that we had hoped, but Egypt is never going to be the same again when you have elections in which criticism of the sitting government, even the President, was thoroughly and completely permitted. It's never going to be the same. And so if I look throughout the whole region, I see those changes coming and I believe Iraq will help to catalyze it.

MR. KIECHEL: Shifting the geographic gears a little bit, Madame Secretary, the Bush Administration has expressed a doctrine of preemption to stop threats -- I'll probably get the exact wording wrong, but to stop threats to international security before they become even bigger.

What with the recent testing of long-range missiles by North Korea, that indicates that the regime there continues the pace to develop weapons of mass destruction. So is there an incidence in which a preemptive strike to destroy North Korean missiles would be called for?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, the United States has taken the course of rallying a very important coalition of North Korea's neighbors to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat and that's the best way to deal with this. You know, several years ago, it was the United States and North Korea, so when North Korea broke the agreed framework from 1994, it was the United States and North Korea. And now, you're talking about China and Japan and Russia and South Korea and that's a much stronger coalition. Now to be sure, the United States maintains, first in its alliance with the Republic of Korea, also with its alliances in the region like the alliance with Japan and our own capabilities in the region, plenty of capabilities so that the North Koreans are not confused about who is preeminent in terms of the security situation.

Now, the President has been very clear, we don't have any desire to invade or attack North Korea. Why would we do that? So North Korea also has no reason to have nuclear capability. And that's really what's stated in the framework agreement that was signed in September between the six parties. That's why the denuclearization of the Korea Peninsula makes sense, because there's no threat to North Korea from the United States to invade or attack. That said, I think the North Koreans recognize that any provocation, however, the United States and its allies have plenty of capability to deal with it.

MR. KIECHEL: Now I'm going to shift from the present events a little bit to the past. As a scholar of the Soviet bloc, you'll remember, no doubt, how many experts believed that when Ronald Reagan went to Berlin and said "Tear down this wall," people didn't believe it.


MR. KIECHEL: Didn't expect it. And so my question is a little bit -- when you look at the world scene today, is there anything that might be about to happen in the coming years that would surprise people, maybe the experts, as much as they were surprised, as people were surprised by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of communism?

SECRETARY RICE: People are going to be surprised on how different the Middle East is going to be in a few years. That would be my prediction.

MR. KIECHEL: Democratic developments?

SECRETARY RICE: More democratic development, but undoubtedly, turbulent, rocky, because that's how big changes are. But I'm glad you mentioned that, because, you know, the last time I was here, it was 1989 to 1991, I got to be the White House Soviet specialist at the end of the Cold War. It doesn't get much better than that. And it was the end of a long period of change, a long period of America containing the Soviet threat until, as George Cannon put it, the Soviet Union had to deal with its own internal contradictions. And so I got to be a part of the liberation of Eastern Europe and the unification of Germany and the beginnings of the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union.

But you know, when I look back, I realize that we were just harvesting good decisions that had been taken in '46 and '47. And I look back on that period and I think, how did they keep their bearings, because on any given day, the people who would walk into this building would know that in 1946, the Italian Communists won 48 percent of the vote and the French Communists, 46 percent of the vote. That in 1947, there was a civil war in Greece and civil conflict in Turkey, two million Europeans were starving. In 1948, Czechoslovakia fell to a Communist coup. In 1948, Berlin was permanently divided by the Berlin crisis. In 1949, the Soviet Union set off a nuclear weapon five years ahead of schedule and the Chinese Communists won.

Now, those were not just small setbacks. And I would say -- I would submit that if you had said to people at that time, "Okay, but in 1989 and 1990, the Soviet Union is going to collapse, Eastern Europe is going to peacefully emerge as democratic, Germany will finally unify. By the way, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania are all going to be members of NATO. And Russia will emerge as imperfect, but on a democratic path," you would have said, "Are you out of your mind."

And so what we have to remember, again, is that things that, at the time, look -- that look impossible and hard and difficult when you're in the middle of that kind of change very often turn out -- and you look back and you say, "Well, of course that's the case." So what we have to do at this beginning of another great transformation, because that was -- I was here the last time at the end of the great transformation, this time I'm here at the beginning of a great transformation.

And so we have to lay the foundation for democracy. We have to help to create institutions that will safeguard that democracy. We have to build relations with like-minded states and this time, we have like-minded states to help us. In '47 and '48, they didn't have them because they were all destroyed after World War II. We have to lay this foundation and in -- I don't know if it will be 10 years or 20 years or 30 years, people will look back and they say, "We're really glad that they didn't take the easy way; that they didn't take the short cut." That they didn't say, "Well, stability is enough," and insisted on democratic development.

MR. KIECHEL: Madame Secretary, when I told my 15-year-old daughter, Charlotte, that I was coming here to meet you, she said, "Please tell her to run for President." And so --

SECRETARY RICE: Tell, Charlotte she can run for President in a few years. (Laughter.)

MR. KIECHEL: Well, she's actually planning to do that within the timeframes -- a few years out. You've made clear your lack of interest in higher political office, but if there are groundswell from a lot of Charlottes out there, could that change your mind?

SECRETARY RICE: I know what I'm suited to do in life. I'm a person who has always had a -- who has never had a plan. You know, I've been fortunate that I've been able to go through a series of jobs and responsibilities and opportunities that, when I was a kid growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, I would never have dreamed. But by this time in life, I do know what I want to do and what I don't. So I'll either go into sports management some place or, more likely, go back to Stanford and maybe see Charlotte at Stanford.

MR. KIECHEL: That would be a great dream. Okay. Well, thanks very much.

MR. BEAMAN: Thank you so much, Madame Secretary.

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you very much. Thank you.


Released on September 5, 2006


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