For Condi Rice and Colin Powell, They Were ‘Days of Fire,’ Too

Peter Baker’s portrait of the Bush-Cheney administration sheds light on the roles that the first black secretaries of state played in shaping American foreign policy.

President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powell meet in the White House, May 12, 2006, Washington, D.C.
President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powell meet in the White House, May 12, 2006, Washington, D.C. Martin Simon-Pool/Getty Images

Peter Baker’s Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House offers not only an authoritative and nuanced portrait of the Bush administration but also a window into the way in which Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice wielded power during a time of war.

The two most senior black Cabinet officials of the Bush Administration consistently attempted, with varying degrees of success, to advocate for a more nuanced and tempered foreign policy strategy.

And one was more successful than the other.

Powell’s role in making the administration’s fallacious claims about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction would, in hindsight, prove tragic. In many ways, he’s spent the rest of his time in public life trying to make up for this catastrophic mistake.

Rice, though a less historic figure, would prove both more pragmatic than Powell and a better bureaucratic infighter. She was unheralded, but thrived in the largely thankless role of attempting to clean up the global-sized wreckage left in the Iraq war’s wake.

As the first African-American secretary of state—after having served as national security adviser and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies—Powell was a genuine Washington power broker, perhaps the first black man before Barack Obama who many insiders thought could be elected president of the United States.

But in the aftermath of 9/11, Powell found himself consistently on the losing end of political infighting with foreign policy hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who used his close relationship to President George W. Bush to routinely bypass the secretary of state. As Baker observes, “Bush did not connect with Powell” on a personal level, which blunted the elder statesman’s impact on both the run-up to the Iraq War and its aftermath. “The president was never comfortable with Secretary Powell,” said one White House official, “because Powell loomed so large that I always had the sense that the president felt like his all-star quarterback big brother was always around telling him what he should do better.”

While Bush chafed at Powell’s imposing shadow, he developed a like-minded, almost familial, rapport with Condi Rice, a Powell protégée and confidante whose portfolio as national security advisor from 2001-2005 expanded to include serving as a diplomatic emissary between the vice president and the State Department, increasingly at odds with how to define the “war on terror.”

Both Cheney and his mentor, the defiantly unlikable secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, formed one school of thought about national security in Sept. 11’s aftermath. They viewed pre-emptive war in Iraq as vital to America’s domestic security and national standing. Powell and Rice countered this view by calling for backing from the United Nations Security Council in order to build an international coalition that, beyond symbolic political value, might share the burden of blood and treasure that any conflict would surely cost.