Yes, Condi, You're a Student of History
But that doesn't let you off the hook.
Three weeks ago, as the Israel-Lebanon war was heating up and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was making the first of her halfhearted diplomatic trips to the region, she said the following to reporters on the plane ride:
I'm a student of history, so perhaps I have a little more patience with enormous change in the international system. It's a big shifting of tectonic plates, and I don't expect it to happen in a few days or even in a year.
I missed this remark when it was first reported. (I saw it reprised in the middle of an excellent article about the pitfalls of President Bush's democracy-spreading policy in this Tuesday's Wall Street Journal.) Still, the statement is worth a close look now, because it reflects with glaring clarity something horrifying about this administration's leaders: the wide-elbowed indifference with which they stomp around the globe, their shrugged inattention to the consequences of their actions.
Rice was explaining why the Bush administration wasn't moving more quickly to stop the fighting that had already begun to kill hundreds of people and to destabilize the region. She had recently commented that the mayhem marked "the birth pangs of a new Middle East," and now she was noting that birth pangs—or, in her new metaphor, tectonic shifts—take a while to play out.
Someone might have asked how long it does take to go through "a big shifting of tectonic plates." If not "in a few days or even in a year," then what—in a year and a half, five years, a decade, a century? And does the United States—the one power that could impose a cease-fire if its president so desired—really have to wait until the earthquake dies down before stepping into the fray?
This was not the first time that Rice invoked her school years to shut down a line of questioning. On Sept. 12, 2005, during an interview with the CBS News editorial board in New York, Rice was asked if U.S. commanders made a mistake in letting Osama Bin Laden escape into the Afghan mountains of Tora Bora. Rice replied:
I'm a student of history. We'll really know the stories about this, if we're lucky, in 20 or 30 years when this all plays out. And I think the second-guessing about Tora Bora is just, you know, it's a waste of time, frankly. I think they did it the way they thought they should do it. I don't have any reason to believe that that was anything but right.
On March 16 of this year, at a town hall meeting in Sydney, Australia, Rice was asked how she felt about the dramatic rise of anti-American sentiment under her watch as a result of the war in Iraq. She replied:
I'm a student of history. I know very well that things that seemed like brilliant strategies one day or maybe for one week or maybe for one year or maybe even for five years turned out to be disastrous strategies in terms of history. And I know that strategies that seemed at the time to be fraught with mistakes and fraught with errors turned out to be very good for human history.
She could have added that, in many more episodes of history, strategies that seemed disastrous at the time still seem disastrous in retrospect. But that may have been too awkward to acknowledge.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Condoleezza Rice by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.