The FP Interview: Condoleezza Rice on Obama, “Leading from Behind,” Iraq, and More

The former secretary of state dishes on what the current administration gets right -- and what it gets wrong.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat down for an extensive interview with Foreign Policy as part of the rollout of her new book, No Higher Honor. Rice criticized the notion of "leading from behind"; called for a return to a focus on human rights in foreign policy; lamented the downfall of democracy in Russia, calling Putin's likely return to power a "terrible turn of events"; and contended that George W. Bush's administration, despite avowals by the current White House to the contrary, had always intended to negotiate an extension to the agreement that required all U.S. troops to exit Iraq by the end of this year.

On the contentious subject of Middle East peace, Rice fully endorsed the U.S. decision to withdraw from any U.N. organization that grants full membership to the Palestinians, as UNESCO did this week. "If the U.N. wants to go down this road, let them see how well they do without U.S. support," she said. Rice also said that by initially pressuring the Israeli government to accept a settlement freeze, Barack Obama's administration had "put the Palestinians in a position of having to be less Palestinian than the United States," forcing them to adopt more extensive demands.

The edited transcript follows:

Foreign Policy: The terminology that many people use to describe the Obama administration's foreign policy is this phrase, "leading from behind," which is now confirmed to have come from a White House official. Does that accurately portray the Obama administration's foreign policy?

Condoleezza Rice: I sincerely hope not, because it's an oxymoron. I never understood the notion of "leading from behind." If you mean leading in concert with others, that's one thing, and America has a long history of having allies. But without having American leadership, it's very rare that difficult things get done. I fully understand the pressures, and indeed the attractiveness, of dealing with our internal issues -- whether it's the budget deficit, entitlements, or K-12 education, or immigration. And I understand why Americans are feeling a bit weary of the world. And I'm a big believer that until we do that internal repair, it's actually going to be difficult for us to lead.

But we don't actually have an option to sit on the sidelines. That will either provoke chaos, or maybe somebody else will try to lead who doesn't share our commitment to the balance of power that favors freedom, and that would be bad for our interests, not to mention our values.

FP: Do you see the Libya intervention as an example of this "leading from behind" philosophy?

CR: Leaving aside the phrase, which I really just do find to be an oxymoron, I would just say that there's nothing wrong with the British and the French taking a strong role, or even the lead role, in doing something in a part of the world where the Europeans have great interests. But what was demonstrated actually there [in Libya] was that they very much needed strong American involvement.

When you talk about NATO, most of the military capability in NATO belongs to the United States. When the United States recognized the transitional national government, I think that made a big difference in their legitimacy worldwide. The United States may indeed see circumstances where it's fine for Europe to be ahead in the lead, but it doesn't mean that the United States can abdicate responsibility, because it's the strongest power in the international system.

FP: Some say that throughout the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has been more reactive than strategic and has been caught off guard in their various responses to the situations in Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc. What do you think that says about their national security policy process?

CR: Well, I do think the administration has been caught off guard by the Arab Spring and a little bit slow to respond, as I think was the case with the Iranian events in 2009. But they've gotten to the right place, and I know how hard it is when you're in government to see all these events when they're coming at you.

What's very often not understood is that you have to be very clear on what the principle is, and the principle ought to be that no man, woman, or child should live in tyranny. But you're going to have different responses to different circumstances. You're not going to treat states with which you have relationships and a chance to influence them as friends the same way you're going to treat implacable enemies, in those circumstances. I don't begrudge anyone having policies that are tailored to the circumstances as long as you recognize that authoritarianism is not stable and you are trying to bring about change.

FP: Many in Washington see the Obama administration as downgrading the status of human rights issues, especially with countries like China and Russia -- arguing that putting human rights behind closed doors into private discussions is more effective. Where do you come down on that?

CR: I think you have to do both. I raised plenty of human rights [concerns], particularly individual cases with the Russians or with the Chinese in private, but I think the United States can't be silent about our belief that human beings have these rights and that governments that deny them are not only wrong but they're on the wrong side of history. And so I'm a believer in being both public and doing it in private. They're not mutually exclusive.

FP: What do you think about the Obama administration's treatment of the Dalai Lama?

CR: Look, the Chinese are never going to be satisfied on that matter. And so you might as well go ahead and meet the Dalai Lama and let the Chinese complain about it for a while, and usually relations would get back on track, which is what happened with us.

FP: As we saw with the administration's decision not to sell F-16s to Taiwan, there seems to be a concentration on not creating tension with China, and some believe that comes at the cost of making policy decisions that are not in the interest of those in the United States and its allies.

CR: You can take tough decisions with China and still have a productive relationship, as we did. Now, we didn't sell F-16s either. I think you want to be concerned about the strategic balance, and at the time the Taiwanese under [then Taiwanese President] Chen Shui-Bian were in a rather provocative stance and so we made that decision. But we never shied away from the Taiwan Relations Act; we never shied away from human rights issues, the Dalai Lama.… And so it's possible to have a nuanced relationship with China that permits productive engagement on issues of common interest, but also be very clear with the Chinese that you will defend American values as well as American interests.

FP: The argument made by almost all of the GOP presidential candidates is that currently the U.S. government is focusing too much on engaging with competitors that they're calling "enemies" and not focusing enough on strengthening alliances. As a broad trend, do you see that to be the case?

CR: Well, I do think that early on, there was this idea of reaching out to adversaries, a little bit on the premise that they were adversaries who you could work with.… You reach out to the Iranians and they bite your hand off. So I think after a while, this idea that you build a policy around reaching out to adversaries has floundered and foundered, and now you have a much stronger understanding that those are states that you probably have to confront.

FP: So you see the Obama administration's foreign policy as having matured over the years?

CR: Well, I think it's evolved.

FP: About Russia, now that we know that Vladimir Putin is set to run and win in the next election, what is your comment on the state of Russian democracy?

CR: I'm really disappointed. It's a terrible turn of events really, because there really hasn't been an effort to, shall we say, "pretend" that there's a democratic process to go through here. And the only good thing is that it has provoked a little bit of a backlash in Russia.… There is a sense of Russians being a bit flabbergasted by this turn of events. And that's good.

I had liked the Medvedev agenda, even if I wasn't sure that he could carry it out -- you know, the idea that Russia would be a knowledge-based economy one day, not one just based on oil, gas, and minerals, and that to do that, it would have to be more tended to the rule of law and international integration. That all seemed very positive to me. I'm somewhat disappointed at this turn of events.

FP: Did you believe that there was an actual competition between Medvedev and Putin, or did you believe that they were two peas in a pod?

CR: No, I didn't. I always assumed that Putin was powerful enough to do what he wanted to do, but I was hoping that Medvedev was beginning to develop a constituency among the many Russians that have now lived in the world, operated in the world, and don't want Russia to act as a backward, authoritarian state.

FP: Do you believe that the Russians should be granted membership into the WTO?

CR: I think that the WTO has a purpose to harmonize rules in the international economy, and when Russia is ready for its ascension, I support its accession.

FP: On Iraq, there's a current debate about what actually happened when the Bush administration signed the 2008 SOFA agreement. My understanding at the time was that there was an expectation that it would be renegotiated to provide for a further extension of U.S. troops. Is that so?

CR: I think there was an expectation that we would most likely negotiate something that looked like a residual force, for training with the Iraqis. We did manage to negotiate an immunity clause that was acceptable to the Iraqis and acceptable to the Pentagon.

I don't quite know what happened in these negotiations. I think everybody believed it would be better if there were some kind of regional force. In the absence of that, maybe a regional solution will work. I've read about maybe troop buildup in the region; I think that's a way to do it. The Iraqis are good armed forces; they're buying a lot of our equipment. I think they'll be able to defend themselves. They continue to need help on the counterterrorism side, and it would have been a good message to Iran. Although I think it's easy to overstate the degree to which the Iraqis have any attraction to Iran -- that's a pretty lousy relationship, really.

FP: The immunity that you negotiated did not go through the Iraqi parliament, right? That was an executive-to-executive agreement right?

CR: Exactly. I don't know enough to know whether or not that option was available, but it would have been a preferable option.… I think it would have been preferable to have trainers, but you need to maintain a military-to-military relationship in any case.

FP: And just to be clear, there was an expectation that there would be renegotiation for another extension that was understood by both sides?

CR: We certainly understood that the Iraqis reserved that option, and everybody believed that option was going to be exercised.

FP: The Afghanistan timetable for withdrawal says that the surge troops will be removed by 2012. The critics of the administration say that this is political, because there's no military or strategic reason to set that date other than the [U.S. presidential] election. Do you believe that this decision represents more of a political objective than a military one?

CR: Well, I'm not going to try and judge the motives here. I hope that these deadlines are set with some sense of what you want to have accomplished by that time.

The surge troops were there for a reason, [and] I'm not close enough to the situation to make an assessment of whether or not they can come out. But I do know that the 2014 deadline that is looming out there, we really do have to have trained an Afghan army that is capable of preventing an existential threat to the government. We have to have done something to improve the provincial and national leadership and institutions for the Afghans. I think both of those are doable in the next couple years. The one that I'm worried about is the instability in Pakistan, because a lot of Afghanistan's problems are Pakistani.

FP: This is the biggest foreign-policy issue of this week: The U.N. crisis caused by the Palestinian membership in UNESCO. And it's a crisis that's only getting larger and larger. There could be up to 16 U.N. organizations, including the IAEA and the World Health Organization, where the U.S. will have to withdraw based on the law if the Palestinians are admitted. What are we to think of this, and what should be done to get us out of this crisis?

CR: Well, you know, actually, if the U.N. wants to go down this road, let them see how well they do without U.S. support. I don't have any sympathy for UNESCO or anybody else that decides they are going to jump over what has long been the way we're going to get to a Palestinian state, which is negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

I think we made some mistakes. Look, I just wrote the [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert offer. I do think the administration would have been better off not to start with the settlement freeze, which no Israeli prime minister can do and which put the Palestinians in a position of having to be less Palestinian than the United States, had they not gone along with that. So I think we made some mistakes, but this is not the way to react to that, and I have no problem putting the U.N. on notice that they will lose American support if they go down this road.


The Pharoah's Lawyer

The deposed Egyptian dictator's lawyer explains in an exclusive interview how he plans to defend a man once seen as above the law.

Egyptian pro-democracy protesters took to the streets on Jan. 25 demanding economic and political reform. Eighteen days later, Hosni Mubarak stepped down, ending his 30-year reign as Egypt's unchecked leader. The ailing former president was detained on April 13 on charges of corruption and ordering the killing of protesters, but little was seen or heard from him until Aug. 3, when the world saw a broken Mubarak wheeled into a courtroom on a hospital gurney. His words that day, "Yes, I am here. I deny all these accusations completely," are all Egyptians have heard -- from the man they once called "pharaoh" -- since his resignation Feb. 11.

The ex-president's two sons, Alaa and Gamal, are also on trial, and Fareed ElDeeb, a former prosecutor practicing law since 1971, has represented the Mubarak family since April. ElDeeb is a famous trial lawyer in Egypt, with a long resume of representing high-profile clients, including Azzam Azzam, convicted in 1997 for spying for Israel, and Talat Mustapha, a real estate tycoon currently serving 15 years in prison for killing his Lebanese girlfriend. Over the years, ElDeeb has also represented famous public figures such as the Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz; award-winning actress Yousra, belly dancer Fifi Abdo, and the family of late president Anwar Sadat.

But the Mubaraks are without question his highest-profile case yet, and one that has millions of Egyptians glued to their television sets. The trial, which has been postponed several times, is scheduled to resume on Dec. 28. It includes a criminal case and hundreds of civil complaints, filed by lawyers representing the families of those killed during the revolution.

Mohamed Fadel Fahmy caught up with ElDeeb at his home in Cairo. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: How are the former president and the Mubarak family coping with their situation now?

Farid ElDeeb: Mubarak does not comment much. He only asks, "What is the next step?" He is used to secrecy. What amazes me is that I have never heard him badmouth anyone, even those who attack him. I asked him once how it feels not to be free. He responded, "Since when have I been free? I was never able go out freely. The security [forces] surrounded me all the time. I could not walk to the garden, cinema, or take to the streets. I got used to it."

There is no doubt the life of the family that lived in the presidential palace for 30 years has turned upside down. Suzanne Mubarak [the former president's wife] is suffering constantly over the future of her family. She visits Mubarak daily in the hospital, with the permission of the general prosecutor, then returns to her home at night. Alaa Mubarak's son Omar had been studying and taking exams at home but this semester he returned to his American school in Cairo.

In dealing with [former president Mubarak], I realized he is a very kind man who may have made mistakes like any leader but never meant to intentionally damage his country.

FP: The Illicit Gains Authority announced on Oct. 16 that they "discovered" that Mubarak's sons Alaa and Gamal hold $340 million in now-frozen assets in Switzerland.

ElDeeb: You mean the "Oct. 16 television freezing," is what I call it. It is shocking because the general prosecutor froze their assets on Feb. 28. In legal terms it's called a "ban on disposition of assets." I think those behind the second announcement imagine that their media stunt will serve their interest in retrieving the millions from Switzerland. They are taking the wrong path.

I responded to deputy justice minister Asem Al Gohari [who announced the freeze], and reprimanded him for misleading the public. They did not "discover" anything. I gave them the key and the documents that prove that these funds were noted in the financial possession declaration of Gamal Mubarak in 2003, 2008, and 2011. I submitted the sources of the funds obtained from the sons' work in global stock-market consultation with clients outside of Egypt who have nothing to do with Egypt's market. The revenues entered a joint account owned by the two brothers, which was then separated in March 1, 2008. The funds in the accounts, after years of [accumulating] interest, reached over $300 million. Is it wrong for a man to make legal profits?

The sons only face charges of obtaining villas for prices lower than market rates due to their father's political position. If convicted, they may only serve a maximum of three years in prison.

FP: How are the Mubaraks spending money now after the freeze on their finances?

ElDeeb: Hosni Mubarak's health bill is paid by the government, as the law permits with any president or former president. His wife lives off his monthly pension, which reaches up to 93,000 Egyptian pounds (about $15,500). Mubarak and his wife do not own a single dollar inside or outside of Egypt. The total funds in his bank do not exceed 6 million Egyptian pounds.

FP: In your opinion, what role is the media playing in Egypt now? And how is it affecting the Mubarak trial, especially since Judge Ahmed Refaat banned broadcasting of the trial?

ElDeeb: The media has become a dangerous tool for destruction, and the media personalities and journalists are racing to destroy Egypt and defame innocent people. The media in Egypt must face the death sentence because it's not a tool for awareness anymore but only a channel for spreading lies.

I personally support this decision of banning the broadcast of the trial because many of the legal and administrative procedures may not be understood by the general public and by the intellectuals who know nothing about law. I believe that public opinion should not be influenced by media. We have to admit that in reality, it does, be it positive or negative.

FP: The public was shocked to see the witnesses changing their testimonies in court. What was the prosecutor's reaction to that?

ElDeeb: One of the officers in the Central Security Forces gave his testimony, but the prosecutor wanted him to testify according to their "needs." He was charged with "forged testimony" and detained in an adjacent room during the trial. The judge cleared him by the end of the trial. 

The prosecutor of course wants the witnesses to give clear testimony that incriminates the defendants. When a technical person inspects the testimonies of some witnesses stated in the preliminary investigations, you find that the prosecutor notes down information that this witness never said in the questioning. They didn't say what is stated in the evidence list presented to the court by the prosecutor.

The crisis now is that the prosecutor has believed what they have written in the evidence list without going back to the testimonies of those witnesses.

FP: What about the witness who allegedly destroyed a CD containing vital recordings between another of the defendants, former Minister  of Interior Habib el-Adly, and his aides?

ElDeeb: There was no CD. This falls among the list of rumors about a call from the minister to his aides ordering them to "kill or slaughter protesters." This is all nonsense.

FP: The court is expected to hear the testimonies of 1,631 witnesses. How long is this trial expected to last?

ElDeeb: I did not call for the testimony of a single witness. The prosecutor did. They are not eyewitnesses but the prosecutor sees that their testimony serves their case against the defendants. The court must hear all the witnesses with no exception. To be precise, I requested the testimony of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the Supreme Council ruling the country, but postponed it. The court then called him and high-profile witnesses like Omar Suleiman, the former head of Egyptian intelligence and vice president, on the request of the civil rights lawyers.

FP: What was the nature of the testimonials dubbed "secret or behind closed doors" of high-profile witnesses like Marshal Tantawi, especially since there was a ban on the publication of their details?

ElDeeb: There was nothing secret or closed-doors about it. If it was, then the civil rights lawyers should not have been allowed in. The judge avoided the media's manipulation. I didn't ask the witnesses a single question. I was shocked to see some civil rights lawyers chanting against Marshal Tantawi while he was giving his testimony, so I left the courtroom. The judge offered to let Tantawi sit down while giving his testimony out of respect for his old age, but the marshal refused and stood for an hour until he finished.

FP: Some say the testimonies of the high-profile officials under Mubarak's former regime were favorable to your case and may have cleared Mubarak of any wrongdoing. What is your comment on that?

ElDeeb: You know that different people understand things in different ways, depending on how they grasp the information. What the court decides is the only thing that matters. The general testimonies of the high-profile officials state that there no such thing as "awaiting orders." There were previous plans in place to deal with riots or protests, which the security forces are trained to deal with accordingly. There were no specific orders about dealing with protesters on Jan. 25 or 28, and that will be the basis of my defense in the upcoming hearings because there are a lot of missing loops regarding the facts around this issue in the police and armed forces.

FP: The trial has been postponed until Dec. 28 and the civil rights lawyers are calling for Judge Ahmed Refaat to step down. Can you clarify the reasons for this controversy?

ElDeeb: The court has the right to reject the civilian case if it obstructs the process of the criminal case. I was hoping they do that, because honestly the civil rights lawyers don't know what they are talking about. Many of them give exaggerated speeches in court to show off or claim fame. They don't understand that we are in the stages of preparing for the case. The judge warned them once in court, saying, "I can use the right to decline the civilian case so don't force me to do that." They submitted a motion to the Appeals Court claiming that Judge Ahmed Refaat had close ties to Hosni Mubarak and the presidential palace and that he was not treating the civilian rights lawyers fairly. The higher court was supposed to rule on the motion on Sept. 28, then it was delayed until Oct. 22 and ultimately, a final decision was to be taken on Dec. 26.

On Oct. 29, a day before the scheduled hearing, the judge of the higher court stepped down for what is known in legal terms as "avoiding embarrassment." Therefore, Judge Ahmed Refaat reinstated the detention of the defendants and postponed the trial until Dec. 28, since he is not allowed to resume the trial while a ruling has not passed on the motion demanding his resignation.

The civil rights lawyers were not happy with the two-month delay and asked the Appeals Court to take steps toward minimizing the gap. In return, the Appeals Court appointed another court to rule on the motion on Nov. 3, instead of Dec. 26 as announced earlier.

If a new judge is chosen for the Mubarak trial, then we have to start the proceedings from the beginning. I assure you, Judge Refaat has no ties with the presidential palace and he denied this to the higher court. It's comical because Mubarak ruled the whole country and no judge is appointed without his approval anyway.

FP: Why did the judge merge court procedures of Mubarak's case with that of his former Minister of Interior Habib el-Adly?

ElDeeb: They both faces the charges of killing protesters during the Jan. 25 uprising, and the same witnesses will testify against them, so the court will obviously listen to them one time only.