Rice: Obama Election Is "Quantum Leap"

Rice: Obama Election Is "Quantum Leap"

In a soon-to-be broadcast interview with C-SPAN's Steve Scully, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the implications of Barack Obama's victory at the polls, as well as the state of international relations that he will inherit as president. The full transcript, which has already been posted online, shows Rice in a reflective and history-conscious mood, as she describes her own experience as a victim of racism in 1960's Birmingham. Also, in discussing George W. Bush's forthcoming post-presidency, she revealed that the nation's 43rd chief executive sees himself as "the dissident president," given the fact that he is "drawn to those people who are willing to fight under dangerous circumstances, who fight courageously for freedom."

When asked about the global impact of Obama's election, Rice said:

I think what you really saw here was that race is no longer the factor in American identity and American life, and that's a huge step forward.

I've just been also in the Middle East, and there it was seen that a country that had such deep racial divisions - I've said myself that America had a birth defect, slavery - and that we could overcome that and that you could have, of course, this really quantum leap to a black - the election of the first African American president, but really something that's been going on a while. When you look at American life now, you see that America has had a black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (inaudible) in Colin Powell, back-to-back black Secretaries of State; Tiger Woods, probably the most recognizable athlete; Oprah Winfrey, someone who transcends race in many ways, as the most popular figure. I think what is being seen around the world is that old wounds can be overcome. And in a world where difference is still a license to kill, that's an extremely important message.

Rice put America's racial progress in perspective by describing her own experiences as a young girl:

Well, I was a child in Birmingham, Alabama, and in 1963, which had been a very, very violent year, with police dogs in the park that Bull Connor had sicced on innocent protesters, or the constant bombings that were in neighborhoods like my own neighborhood in Birmingham, a nice, middle-class neighborhood that was shattered by bombings every several weeks, and then you had the events at 16th Street Baptist Church. And I remember very well being at church, at my father's church which was just down the street, Westminster Presbyterian, and there was a kind of rumble. And everyone wondered what it was. It was long before cell phones, of course. But somehow the word began to spread that there had been a bombing at the church. And as it became clear that little girls had died in that church, I think the terror, really homegrown terrorism, had come to Birmingham in a very dramatic way. And Denise McNair, one of the little girls that was killed in that church, had been a friend of mine, a kindergarten friend of mine, and it's hard to believe that that Birmingham gave way, first of all, that the successor to Bull Connor is actually a black woman, it's hard to believe. But over time, of course, America has begun to heal her - her racial wounds, and that culminated in the election of Barack Obama. ...

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama; it was hard not to feel racism. Whether it was going into a store and hearing my mother tell the store clerk, well, no, she's not going to try that dress on in a storeroom. If she can't try it on in the fitting room like all little girls do, then we won't buy that dress. Or shortly after the Civil Rights Act had passed in 1964, going through a hamburger stand and being given a hamburger that was all onions.

Of course racism was a daily companion in Birmingham. But what was remarkable was that I had parents who refused to let it become crippling. They refused to let me be bitter. They refused to let me use it as an excuse, and they somehow managed to send the message that racism was somebody else's problem, not mine.

When asked about Iraq, Rice conceded that many mistakes have been made, and that important lessons took a long time to be properly absorbed, but asserted that history would ultimately judge the administration kindly:

There are a lot of things that could have been done differently. I think that it took awhile to really understand how to help a country that was really completely destroyed in its fabric, not just its institutions, but the fabric of society by the years of tyranny under Saddam Hussein and how to help it recover. In retrospect, we did a lot from Baghdad, a lot from the top down. The provinces and the tribes were clearly part of the answer. And it took a while to recognize that the complete integration of the civilian and military effort through the Provincial Reconstruction Teams would empower the provinces to create friends, for instance, the sons of Iraq and Anbar, who would then themselves with our help expel al-Qaida.

I believe strongly that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was right, and it was perhaps the most important change in the Middle East, and I think we will come to see it that way. But how really desperately fragmented Iraq was; I think that was something we frankly didn't see. I know, too, that we did not have the right institutional structure for postwar operations. It's funny because we didn't have the right institutional structure in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. We left it to the UN.

At several points during the wide-ranging interview, Rice gave her own personal assurance that Obama will work to "defend American interests" in the face of global threats -- perhaps something of a balm to Republicans who declared themselves suspicious of the President-elect on this point during the campaign. Rice also declined to pin the beginning of partisan divisiveness in Washington on Bush's presidency, saying that the end of the Cold War -- and the collapse of a common enemy -- may have spurred contentiousness in the capital:

And when communism was defeated, I think we looked around and all of a sudden there wasn't that common thread holding -particularly on the foreign policy side - together the Democrats of Scoop Jackson, for interest, with the Republicans of Ronald Reagan who would have viewed communism very similarly. And so I think we've had to rebuild that.

But if you really look now at the foreign policy challenges, I think there's a lot of consistent -- consistency of view, a lot of common vision of an America that can sustain our friends and that can keep our enemies at bay. There may be tactical differences - do you talk to these people, do you not talk to those people? But I'd be very surprised if there is anyone who believes that an Iran with a nuclear weapon is a good idea. In fact, President-elect Obama just made that very clear to the Iranians. I'm quite certain that there's an understanding that we need to stand by the new democracies that have been borne in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Lebanon, that our good friend Israel in the Middle East deserves our support because we share values and we share an abiding interest in Israel's security in the Middle East.

As for her experiences in dealing with a presidential transitions, Rice said the state of several current crises mandated a smoother-than-average process:

I want to be very clear. My predecessor, Sandy Berger, the National Security Advisor, was helpful and I don't think we had problems in our transition. But a more structured transition now is important because America can't afford to miss a beat in terms of fighting these terrorists around the world, in terms of maintaining the momentum toward a stable Iraq that has been established, in terms of working with this young, democratic Pakistani Government on it's economic difficulties and also on fighting militancy, on sustaining the work with the Afghan Government that every day faces these terrorists on its territory; we have troops at war, we have men and women both in uniform and civilians who are on the front lines, and they can't afford that there's any slip between the teams that are - the team that is coming in and the team that is leaving. And President Bush has made very clear that all of us, at the cabinet level on down, are to do everything that we can to make sure that our counterparts are ready to take over on day one. And I'm devoted to that. The Department's devoted to that. We've been spending a lot of time on transition. In fact, we have a management retreat every year, and we devoted this year's management retreat in October to the questions of transition. ...

Well, we have a transition team that has been working for some time. It is headed by two very senior career people: Bill Burns, who is the highest ranking career person in the Department, he's the Under Secretary for Political Affairs; and on the management side, the Under Secretary for Management Affairs, Pat Kennedy. They are making certain that there is appropriate space, appropriate transition briefings, that all of the important papers, where we are on everything, will be handed off. I expect when my successor is named to spend a lot of time talking about what we have done, what remains to be done.

Rice also said President Bush thinks of himself as a "dissident president," given his affinity for those "who are willing to fight under dangerous circumstances, who fight courageously for freedom." Rice predicted that theme could become a central plank of Bush's post-presidency, saying: "I'm sure that whatever he does, he'll keep association with people like that, people like Natan Sharansky of Russia and others who have never let freedom's light go out, even when it required great courage to keep it burning."

As for her future plans, Rice said she is an "academic at heart," and is thus prepared to return to her post at Stanford, where she has been on leave. The secretary said she also hopes to write several books once her work on the national stage is finished.

"I want to write a book about American foreign policy. I want to write a book about my folks, my parents. I want to write - I want to think about what I can do to engage what they call tweeners now, or 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds and 14-year-olds, and maybe open up the world to them," she said. "Because I get so many letters from kids that age - so many conservative even clerics in the Middle East will say, "Oh, my granddaughter really loves you. Would you send her a note?" And somehow, that age group - American kids who need to engage the world and want to learn languages and know that there's a big world out there, not to be afraid of but to want to be a part of, as well as kids abroad who need to know America. I'd like to see if there's some way that I can use the platform that I have, the fact that a lot of those kids know my name or know at least that I'm the lady from America, I'd like to see if I could do something to spark their interest in the world."

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