The following is a transcript of George Stephanopoulos’ interview with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Madame Secretary, thanks for doing this.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Pleasure to be with you.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I am so struck by the tone of this book. And there’s a lot of pride there. But, you know, the more I think about it, the word I keep coming back to is sadness. Right at the start, you say you never get over the feeling you could have done better. What is that about? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well I think anyone who’s been in a position like this thinks back and thinks ‘well, there are many of things I would’ve liked to have done,’ but I wouldn’t describe it as sadness. I was thrilled to be there in Washington for the eight years. And the reason I call the book, No Higher Honor, is because there really is no higher honor than serving your country. But of course, we served in turbulent times. And there was a lot of work that was left undone, although I feel very good about the work that we did and the foundation that we laid for getting that work done in the future.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What was the single hardest challenge you faced? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well the single hardest challenge was that after 9/11 we had to think about a different kind of Middle East. And when you think about it, just about most of the really difficult times come in the context of the Middle East. Whether it’s the war in Iraq, or Lebanon, or the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, the beginnings of stirrings of democracy in the Middle East which we championed. But I very much had the sense of being at the beginning of a big historical epic. I was lucky enough to have been the White House’s Soviet specialist at the end of the Cold War. So I got to be there at the end of the big historical epic. It’s a lot easier. And– these– these were– challenging times. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That was easier? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Sure.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Because the hard work for the end of the Cold War had really the foundation of that had been laid in ’46, and ’47, and ’48 by Truman and Marshall. And we got to realize and harvest the benefits of what they had done in founding NATO and standing up to the Soviet Union, and standing vigil in Berlin, and we got to harvest that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and into the division of Germany, unification of Germany. This time around we were laying that groundwork after the horrible attacks of 9/11, and trying to make sense of what the future of American security policy was going to look like.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, that leads to a point I hadn’t thought of before, but do you think that President Obama is building on your foundation or repudiating it? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think in the final analysis there has been a good deal of continuity. Maybe we wouldn’t have thought that at the beginning. And look, every administration comes to power talking about what they’re going to do differently. But when you look at the foundation for the capture of or– or the kill of Osama bin Laden when you look at the Iranian policy and the effort to build now an international coalition around financial sanctions for Iran. When you look at the continuation of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of the foundation was laid years before. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I take all those points, but when you look at what happened with bin Laden, when you look at the killing of al-Awlaki in September, now the death of Moammar Gadhafi, aren’t we seeing a different model now? A more multilateral model? And the truth is you’re seeing these dictators fall without any American lives being lost. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well I don’t think there is a case to be made that Saddam Hussein would have gone down like Moammar Gadhafi, and– maybe– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Would have? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I don’t think there is a case. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He would not have? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Meaning he would not have gone down like Moammar Gadhafi. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why not? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well because he was s a much bigger, more substantial army. Saddam Hussein– Moammar Gadhafi, was a monster, but Saddam Hussein killed 400,000 of his own people. You have to remember one thing we did to help with Moammar Gadhafi, is we disarmed him. He no longer had his weapons of mass destruction, and I’m really glad he didn’t have them sitting in that bunker. And when you look at the drone attacks against– the predator strikes that are now parts of the northwest frontier, of course, the predator came into being on our watch, and was used on our watch. And the efforts to bring together intelligence and military power with diplomatic power I think has a long heritage. And that’s a good thing. The United States needs to have continuity in foreign policy when you have a long-term challenge like Islamic extremism and the war on terror. I’m fearful that what we’re seeing in Syria may have looked more like Iraq. Iraq would’ve looked more like that had we tried to take Saddam down by other means.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You had a complicated relationship with Moammar Gadhafi. I think that’s an understatement. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: (LAUGHS) Complicated. Is that how you said it? GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So what did you think when you saw that video? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well I was not surprised because a number of people had told me that in fact, Gadhafi had this strange fascination with the scrapbook and all that, but it sure was eerie. And look it’s a good thing that he’s gone. It’s a really good thing that he’s gone. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So take us inside his private kitchen. You know he’s got this fascination with you. He calls you the African Princess. And then he plays you this video that we just talked about which he plays to the song “The Black Flower of the White House.” CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yes, yes. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What was going through your head? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: What was going through my head was ‘how long do I have to sit here and how quickly can I get out of here?’ You know, it was funny because when he said, “I have a video for you,” I thought, “Oh my goodness, what is this going to be.” But it was actually just a bunch of pictures of me with Vladimir Putin, and me with Hu Jin Tao. And then he said, “I had Libya’s best composer, most famous composer write this song for you,” and it was called “Black Flower in the White House.” And I thought, “Well this is a really, really strange– strange moment in my time as Secretary of State.” And I ate quickly. And got on the plane to Algeria. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What do you think he wanted from you? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think Qaddafi lived inside his own head. I don’t think he really wanted anything. It was just who he was. And why he had this strange fascination, I think– I’ll never really know. But my goal in going there was to deliver on the real quid pro quo. That he give up his weapons of mass destruction and now Libya could, after paying compensation to the terrorist victims, could now try and reenter the international community. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He did want to have a better relationship with the United States. Going back as far as 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But do you think we might have overcompensated getting too close to him? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I don’t think we ever got very close to him. I think what we did was to eliminate his weapons of mass destructions. Or the most dangerous ones. The ones that he had built on the instructions of (UNINTEL). And then we started to allow business to go back in to Libya, raising some of the sanctions. But — it– we weren’t ever really going to get very close to Gadhafi. And the most important thing was to try and open up this place that had been closed for so long, to get him out of terrorism, to get him away from weapons of mass destruction, to make it a little bit safer. But it’s far preferable that he’s gone. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And when you saw him being dragged through the streets? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Revolutions aren’t pretty. It’s– they never end the way that you hope that they will. I think our best hope now is that the Libyans who now have control of their country and have responsibility for their country will turn away from the tendency toward vindictiveness and revenge and start looking towards the future. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Making public policy isn’t pretty either. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: No. (LAUGHTER) GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you don’t sugarcoat it in your book at all. You talk about your relationship with Vice President Cheney. You said it was never personal, but clearly very contentious. And you talk about how his staff was trying to set up an ultra-hawkish power center in the White House. What was that? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: He had a staff that– they were all of the same mind. They were very, very hawkish. And I think determined to try and drive policy from the Vice President’s office when of course you have to drive policy from the NSC which represents the president and represents the other agencies of government. The State Department, the Defense Department, the Treasury. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And they wanted to have the Vice President running the NSC meetings– CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well that was somebody’s idea on the staff. Later on when Steve Hadley asked the Vice President about that idea that the Vice President would sit at the chair at the NSC principles meeting, which has always been the role for the National Security Advisor, the vice president admitted that that was kind of a dumb idea. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But you all clashed. You clashed over torture policy. You clashed over Iraq policy. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We clashed over detainee policy later in the administration. In the first days after 9/11– and one thing I try to do is to show that this just wasn’t about what happened on 9/11. It wasn’t even just the anthrax attacks that followed a few weeks later. It was plotline after plotline, some of them quite terrifying. Small pox, botulinum toxin. And so we had to move quickly, and we had to move aggressively. And the president was determined to do everything that he could that was necessary and legal. But once we got through that initial period, we knew more about how Al Qaeda operated, particularly after we got Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It was time to start putting these policies on a different footing. And by the time I was Secretary of State, I felt strongly that the secrecy surrounding them was one of the big problems. Because we needed to be able to explain what we were doing. We needed to explain it to our allies because we needed their cooperation in the war on terror. And we needed to be able to explain it to the American people. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But you know, it seems like Vice President Cheney came away from this whole experience, eight years, working with you with less respect for you. He was asked if you were a competent Secretary of State, his answer is, “In some regards.” CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I can’t speak to that. You know, the Vice President and I had our differences. And– he clearly did not like the turn of policy after I became Secretary of State. That’s very clear. But I never felt that it was personal. And– and as I said at the time– I still have high respect and high regard for him and for his service. We just didn’t agree. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you go to him with tears in your eyes saying he was right about the Iraq speech? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Not that I remember. (LAUGHS) It’s sort of not like me. I did– I did tell him that he was right that the press would react in a particular way to admitting that the 16 words had not– should not have been in the President’s speech. But tearful no. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And clashes also with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. It comes to a point where you’re actually walking out of the Oval Office, and I think he asks you, “What’s gone wrong between us.” CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yes. No, I think I asked him. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You asked him. You asked him. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I asked him, because we’d been friends for years. And I said to him, “You know, I don’t know what’s gone wrong between us.” And he said he didn’t either. That we always got along, which was true. And then he said something about my being bright. And– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Something about that word bugged you, didn’t you? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yeah, it just bugged me. It was one of those words that you don’t use about a colleague. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Condescending? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I used it about my students sometimes. And so not condescending, just a term of inequality. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But there’s serious implications. And you keep saying it’s not personal. And I take you at your word, but you also write that it created when you also add in the differences between Secretary Powell and Secretary Rumsfeld, “a cycle of distrust and dysfunction, “and we all know– and you say, you write that there were mistakes in the execution of the war in Iraq, in the aftermath in the war in Iraq. Didn’t all this dysfunction add to the price we paid in Iraq? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well certainly we could have done better. And you’re right, as I look back on this, I think well if it had been a more smoothly functioning team, mightn’t we have gotten some of these issues out onto the table and resolved. But you also have to remember that this was a big proposition in Iraq. It was trying to– to first of all, overthrow a dictator, which was, it turns out the easy part. And then trying to help reconstruct a country that had no fabric whatsoever after all of these years of tyranny. And while we made a lot of mistakes I’m not certain that better planning wouldn’t necessarily have prevented all this. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But you write about the aftermath of the invasion. You say that it wasn’t clear who was going to take responsibility in rebuilding Iraq. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well it’s– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you’re writing about that. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: But the president– the president made clear who was going to take responsibility because he wanted one single command, and it was going to be the Defense Department. Now I think it’s pretty clear from the book that– I don’t– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You say he took a walk on that, Secretary Rumsfeld. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think that the Defense Department didn’t execute at critical times. And that there were certain things that they didn’t plan for. And perhaps, there was a view that we might be able to turn this over to Iraqi exiles more quickly than certainly the president was willing to do. Because the president-more than anyone was very conscious of the fact that you couldn’t, in a country that had been through decades of Saddam Hussein, bring people in from the outside and hand the government to them. And so, yes, I think there was some problems. But it wasn’t confusion. Everybody knew where responsibility was supposed to rest. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And it gets to the point that in 2006, you’re Secretary of State, you go to President Bush, you come back from Baghdad and you said, “What we’re doing is failing.” CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yes. I did. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That took a long time. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well I think we knew that by 2006 the civil conflict had reached a new height. In 2005, in retrospect, it’s now hard to think about this. But in 2005, the Iraqis have their election. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Their election. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The purple-finger election. Things began to look actually pretty good. Even though their first prime minister, Jaafari, was not my cup of tea. They– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You were mystified by him. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I was mystified by him because he had this bearing of a kind of humanities professor. I say it in the book. That got me in a little trouble with some of my friends on the Stanford faculty who are humanities professors. But– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You– (UNINTEL). CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yeah, but it was– but it was really a little bit of otherworldliness about him. And I thought, boy this is a tough country to run. And he doesn’t seem up to it. But not too long after they would get a government in place. So things seemed to be going in a somewhat better direction in 2005. And it’s really after the (UNINTEL) bombing in the Golden Mosque– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The Golden Mosque. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: –that it really starts to spiral downwards. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You also while praising much about Secretary Powell, say that you wish he would’ve used more of the stature that he had to influence policy. What did you mean by that? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well not– not so much to influence policy, but Colin Powell did a really good job as Secretary of State under very difficult circumstances because when you’re at war, the Defense Department is first on. And being the diplomat in wartime is not so easy, particularly when there are difference with the allies. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And differences with the Defense Department. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: And differences with the Defense Department. But what I really meant about that– by that was that Colin is a reserved person. And I sometimes thought that just telling the president more bluntly what he thought might have been warranted. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I know you think that taking down Saddam Hussein was the right thing. You make that clear in the book. But you never really directly answered the question, was it worth the sacrifice. Was it worth the cost? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: When you look at the history of the Middle East over the last 50 years, every school, every international relations class starts with the Middle East is the most volatile region in the world. We also now know that it was the cradle of Al Qaeda and extremism, and therefore– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But Al Qaeda wasn’t in Iraq. You know that now. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: No. But Al Qaeda– well Osama bin Laden was a Saudi. Zawahiri was Egyptian. This came out– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Not Iraqi though. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: –this came out of the Middle East. It came out of a Middle East in which you had malignancies of a freedom deficit, of dictators, of wars. This was a volatile region. Now we didn’t go to Iraq to bring democracy to the Iraqis. And I try in the book to really explain that that wasn’t the purpose.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Some in your administration thought it was. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well– but– but we were very clear about this. This was a security threat of Saddam Hussein who had started wars before, used weapons of mass destruction, was shooting at aircraft in the no-fly zone, was still threatening his neighbors, had tried to assassinate George H.W. Bush, was a cancer in the Middle East and a great source of that volatility in the Middle East, needed to be dealt with. And I as much as anybody understand and really regret the cost, particularly in lives. But I also know that nothing of value is ever won without sacrifice. And I think we’re going to see a very different Middle East. And that different Middle East could not have had Saddam Hussein at the middle of it. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Couldn’t have happened at a lower cost? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I don’t– don’t know how. I don’t think that Saddam was removable by any other means. And I don’t think that Saddam Hussein would have for one moment allowed an Arab spring in Iraq. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But did going after Saddam delay the Arab spring or accelerate it? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We’ll never know the answer to that. But my sense is that the decision to overthrow Saddam pulled out one of the pins of Arab authoritarianism and dictatorship in Iraq. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I just have one more question. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: And I think that’s very important. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Just one more question on this. And I was fumbling through, because I really wanted to get to this sentence. When you’re talking about Iraq. You say, “I’m not sorry that we overthrew Saddam.” But you go on to write, “I’m grateful that today’s concern is not an impending nuclear arms race between Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.” But don’t we know now that Saddam had no meaningful nuclear weapons program? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: No. What we know is that he had not reconstituted his nuclear weapons program. And– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He didn’t have the ability to. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Oh well, he had the scientists, he had the infrastructure. He was buying all kinds of stuff through front companies. He had not reconstituted it. But the idea that Saddam Hussein had given up on weapons of mass destruction I think is simply ahistorical. And I cannot imagine that Saddam Hussein watching Iran move along a nuclear path, given all the infrastructure he had, given all the knowledge he had, given that we know that when in 1991, the inspectors got there, he was far closer to his nuclear device than they thought. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But the inspectors there, the whole world against him. He wasn’t– CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well but the inspectors were only there, George, as a result of what George W. Bush did. They had not been there since 1998. And so we did in fact make certain that Saddam could never again take up his cause of weapons of mass destruction. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What was your best day in the White House? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: My best day in the White House may have been the first (LAUGHS) day in the White House. I’m just kidding. I think the best days in the White House were when those leaders came in that you saw a glimpse of what real leadership in difficult circumstances was like. I remember meeting Nelson Mandela in the Oval Office. And thinking that this is somebody of this extraordinary character. I remember sitting in the Oval Office with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and thinking that this was somebody of extraordinary character. I remember Vladimir Putin seeing the Oval Office for the first time, and saying, “My goodness, it’s beautiful.” And thinking, “Even Vladimir Putin is a little bit disarmed by this shrine to American diplomacy.” GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that the visit where he was wearing the cross? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: No. That was in Slovenia where he and the President talked about the cross. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: That surprised you, that cross, didn’t it? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: It did, a little bit. I’ve always thought of the KGB former and present as not very religious people. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You also had the chance to play cello with Yo-Yo Ma. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I did. Yes. What an extraordinary experience for this failed piano major. (LAUGHS) When he called and asked if I wanted to play, and my secretary said, “Yo-Yo Ma’s on the phone.” And I said, “You mean the cellist?” And she said, “Yes,” that day was just spectacular for me. I only wish my mother could’ve been there. You know, my mom died 25 years ago. And she was the reason I was a musician. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: We’re right in the middle of the Republican primaries right now. Any of the candidates calling you? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I’ve had conversations with a number of people, but I’ve done my part. You know, when you’ve been Secretary of State, you don’t really want to do that. And– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I think that’s exactly what Secretary Clinton says. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yes. (LAUGHS) There’s something about all those– all those plane rides and all those countries that you go to. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But are you– as you look at it– as you look at the position the candidates are taking, there does seem to be a new debate inside the Republican party between the internationalists, those who are acting much in the vein of President Bush, and those who are taking– looking more inward. Taking what some would say is more an isolation tack. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I would talk about it a little differently, looking inwardly. As I go out to the country and talk to people and see people, I do think there is an issue of internal repair in the United States that cannot be ignored. It shows up – and obviously understands our financial and budgetary and economic issues. But it shows up in immigration policies that have become a patchwork of state policies, rather than a comprehensive immigration reform which President Bush championed. It shows up in– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: It seems like every single candidate’s against that right now. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well and we need to get it done. We need to get it done. And it’s K-12 education that is frankly failing the least of our kids. And it’s a lack of confidence and optimism at home that makes it hard to lead abroad. And so I understand the need for internal repair. Somehow we have to summon the will to recognize that if the United States doesn’t lead, there will either be chaos, which is bad or someone will lead who doesn’t share our values. And we want the leadership in the international community to be from a country that values the proposition that every man, woman, and child to live in freedom. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, you were talking about the days following 9/11. There was actually a moment where you and your deputy, Steven Hadley, thought you might have been poisoned yourself. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yes. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: What was it? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: There was a report. The White House censors sensed botulinum toxin, which is a nerve agent that is always lethal. And actually, the President and Colin and– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Within hours, right? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I guess it can be slower acting. We weren’t stopping to ask. (LAUGHS) We were just a little unnerved. But we were in Shanghai actually when the Vice President came on the screen and said that the White House detectors have detected botulinum toxin, and we were all– those of who exposed were going to die. And I remember the room– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He said that? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yes. He said that. And I remember everybody just sort of freezing, and the president saying, “What was that? What was that, Dick?” GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Including the president? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Including the president. Because the exposure time would have meant that we were all exposed. Now just so people who are listening, it was obviously– GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well I was listening, it took my breath away. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: (LAUGHS) It was obviously a false alert. But it was 24 hours before we got the results of the test. The samples were sent to the CDC by Tommy Thompson, who at the time was H.H.S. secretary. And Steve Hadley in his– Steve has this very dry sense of humor. And he said, “Let me put it this way. If the mice are feet up, we’re toast. If the mice are feet down, we’re fine.” GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, wait a second. For 24 hours, we didn’t know if the President had been poisoned? CONDOLEEZZA RICE: For 24 hours, we were in Shanghai. We did not know the results of those tests. About noon the next day at a lunch in China I got a note that Steve Hadley was calling. I got to him on the phone. He said, “The mice are feet down.” I went back to the President, and he was sitting next to the Chinese, and I said “The mice are feet down.” And the President said, “That’s a good thing,” and I’m sure the Chinese who probably got a translation thought it was some sort of code. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Wow. (LAUGHS) I’m sure they did.
The interview took place in New York City on Monday, October 24, 2011. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
- George Stephanopoulos