White House ‘Wicked Witch’ dulls image

Instead of adapting to new terrorists’ strategies, the national security adviser floundered in the days before Sept. 11, 2001.

Karl Noyes

After former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke got done putting a knife in President George W. Bush’s back that went clear through his heart, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had a few sharp words of her own for Clarke. Rice’s verbal cutlery of late has turned a few heads – so much that some have dubbed her the “Wicked Witch of the White House.”

It is an odd thing, too, considering that if you asked around a few weeks ago Rice was probably the most respected of Bush’s gang. Vice President Dick Cheney is too much of a real-life portrayal of diabolical “Batman” villain The Penguin. Secretary of State Colin Powell became merely a sycophant after his fanciful Iraq presentation.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld always looks like he is constipated, and acts like it too. Bush is Bush. First lady Laura Bush is still a librarian. Scott McClellan works more like a distorting echo than a White House press secretary and Alan Greenspan acts more like a lobbyist than a Federal Reserve chairman. This had left Rice and her calm conduct warranting of the praise she received. That changed after Clarke revealed the lackadaisical attitude the Bush administration had toward al-Qaida leading up to and after Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, Rice has been frantically making the media rounds. Indeed, a large number of Clarke’s accusations landed squarely on Rice, and much of the damage control is up to her.

Unfortunately, when she was hired in January 2001, Rice was still thinking in terms of the Iron Curtain and communism and failed to stop thinking that way despite Clarke telling her to start thinking in terms of jihad and terrorism. Instead of adapting, Rice found herself floundering. Her expertise in Cold War strategy no longer applied.

If Rice is anything, she is smart. She started college at age 15, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science cum laude before she was 20. A master’s and a Ph.D. later, she became the youngest-ever provost of Stanford University at 26. She ice skates, has written a few books and has too many other accomplishments to list. But the problem with extremely intelligent people is sometimes they think they are smarter than everyone around them.

Rice thought herself too smart for Clarke and other terror experts when she handled the Aug. 26, 2001, presidential daily briefing warning that al-Qaida could hijack airplanes and use them against the United States. The Soviets did not hijack airplanes, so Rice disregarded the warnings of terrorism like the others.

A week before Sept. 11, Clarke sent a clairvoyant letter to Rice warning of the impending doom. Again, Rice was too smart. On Sept. 9, 2001, when Rumsfeld argued against shifting $600 million from missile defense to counterterrorism, Rice felt his move was prudent. After all, the Soviets used ballistic missiles, not box cutters and airplanes.

So now Rice has gone berserk. She is writing columns and doing interviews like a true media hound. Interestingly, Rice refuses to put her attacks on Clarke under a crucial credibility test by testifying in public and under oath in front of the Sept. 11 commission. She hides behind a flaky constitutional argument when the commission inquires but gets her groove back when it’s Tom Brokaw or Tim Russert doing the inquiring.

Besides being intelligent and having a flippant attitude toward terror warnings, Rice is ambitious. She wants Powell’s job as secretary of state. Powell has already said he would step down after this presidential term. After that, who knows what is in store for little Condi from Birmingham, Ala. There is already a Web site calling for her to run for president in 2008. A successful attempt now seems quite unlikely given the baggage with which Clarke has saddled her and her refusal to testify publicly under oath. By cutting at Clarke, she has certainly dulled her public image.

Karl Noyes is a member of The Minnesota Daily’s editorial board. He welcomes comments at [email protected]