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.
After the 2004 presidential election, Powell became a quiet dissenter toward the administration’s war policy. After Powell resigned, Bush found in Rice a more suitable partner in an effort to reset America’s international relationships. In many instances he regarded the woman who grew up as part of the black middle class in segregated Birmingham, Ala., as both a trusted adviser and little sister. Rice, in turn, basked in the glow that proximity to the president afforded.
Where Powell experienced profound frustration over his inability to sway Bush toward more robust diplomacy during his tenure, Rice found the president more open to diplomacy, to the lasting chagrin of Cheney. Amid rancorous debates over whether Geneva Convention rules applied to al-Qaida prisoners, Rice opposed the Cheney-led group that said they did not with a personal plea to a president increasingly concerned with his place in history.
“Mr. President,” she said, “don’t let this be your legacy.”
As a study in black political leadership, Days of Fire offers up an incisive portrait of two of the leading contemporary black foreign policy leaders’ relationship not just with a president but also with the multilayered and global institutions of power centered in Washington and spreading out globally. Powell’s and Rice’s successes, shortcomings and mistakes remind us how far blacks have come since the civil rights era, and the high costs and unspoken collateral damage behind these achievements.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.