Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright Conduct a MasterClass on the Banal Horror of U.S. Foreign Policy

Watching the 3.5 hour video is like being forced to eat gallons of stale banana pudding. Also, the pudding contains a small amount of botulism.

Condoleezza Rice, right, laughs during a conversation with Madeleine Albright in the recorded trailer for their MasterClass. Photo: Elise Swain/The Intercept

At the beginning of a new “MasterClass” on diplomacy with Condoleezza Rice and the late Madeleine Albright, Rice explains that “some people have even said, ‘The diplomat lies for their country.’”

Soon afterward, Albright makes similar remarks: “There are some incredible definitions of diplomacy, which is, it gives you the capability to go and lie for your country.”

If this is in fact what diplomacy is all about — and presumably Rice and Albright would be in a position to know — this MasterClass shows that they are both incredibly committed diplomats.

Albright, who died earlier this year, was America’s first female secretary of state, serving during the Bill Clinton administration. Rice was the second, during the administration of George W. Bush.

The lies are just as boring as the parts that are true.

It’s not all lies, of course. The entire Rice/Albright video lasts almost 3.5 hours, the same length as the extended DVD version of “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Most of the time, the two emit a quiet murmur of mind-obliterating platitudes, accompanied by what seems to be the music from C-SPAN and stock footage of a chessboard. For instance, Albright tells us that “Americans didn’t recognize well enough how fragile democracy was, but at the same time how resilient democracy was,” which is somehow both banal and incomprehensible.

In fact, the lies are just as boring as the parts that are true. You might assume Rice and Albright would mislead viewers in cunning, complex ways that would require extensive effort to refute. Instead, they both just straightforwardly deny reality.

All in all, watching the languorous, dull-but-accurate parts is like being forced to eat eight gallons of stale banana pudding. Then the lies are like a batch of botulism mixed in. By the end, you will definitely feel ill, but you can only ascribe it to the entire experience, rather than being able to narrow it down to one specific cause.

Explicating all of Rice and Albright’s deceptions would require an article that would take longer to read than the running time of the MasterClass itself. So let’s just hit the highlights.

The cruelest segment of the video, as measured by the chasm between the promised content and what’s actually delivered, is called “Learning From Failed Decisions.” The text below this title claims that Rice will share “her mistakes on 9/11 and Iraq.”

However, it turns out the only mistake Rice made was believing her incompetent underlings. “I was in two situations,” she begins, “where the intelligence turned out in one case to be lacking, and in another case to be wrong.”

The first, of course, is the 9/11 attacks. On September 11, 2001, Rice was Bush’s national security adviser — i.e., arguably the person most responsible in the U.S. government for addressing any threats of terrorism. Here’s her explanation for how she and her colleagues missed what was going on:

All that the intelligence reports were saying … was, something big is going to happen. “There will be a wedding,” which was terrorist code for some kind of attack. But all of the intelligence actually pointed to something happening outside of the country.

When I heard Rice say this, my brain seized up and ground to a confused halt. My thought process went something like:

I —
where am i. have i slipped into an alternate universe where up is down & the sky is green & giraffes sing hit duets with taylor swift?

This was because — although it may be fading from living memory — the most famous moment of Condoleezza Rice’s life occurred in 2004, when she acknowledged in front of the 9/11 Commission that the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus warned Bush that an Al Qaeda attack might be imminent inside America. Here, watch it for yourself:

That’s right: The presidential daily brief delivered to Bush on August 6, 2001, one month before the 9/11 attacks, was headlined “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” You can read the whole thing here. The very first sentence states, “Bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the U.S.” Later, the brief warns that “FBI information … indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings.”

So here, Rice put essentially no effort into her deceit. But what she says next is somehow even worse:

We had a pretty bright wall between what the FBI could do and what the CIA could do. They didn’t talk to each other. So just to give an example — probably by now everybody knows the case of [Zacarias] Moussaoui, who was the flight student in Arizona who only wanted to learn to fly one way. That might have been a signal. He was known to the FBI. He was not known to the CIA.

Almost everything about this is inaccurate. Rice is correct that Moussaoui was a member of Al Qaeda who came to the U.S. and attended flight school, where he did behave in peculiar ways. However, he did not go to flight school in Arizona, as Rice says; it was in Oklahoma and Minnesota. It’s not the case that he “only wanted to fly one way.” (According a report by the Justice Department inspector general, “Media reports later incorrectly reported that Moussaoui had stated that he did not want to learn to take off or land a plane.”)

Most importantly, whatever wall prevented some information from passing between the FBI and the CIA, it did not stop Moussaoui from being caught. His behavior was so suspicious that he was in fact arrested on August 16, 2001, and (according to the same Justice Department report) the FBI then discussed the case with the CIA. Moussaoui was in prison on September 11. The bulk of the evidence also suggests that he was not part of the 9/11 plot, and was in the U.S. to conduct a subsequent attack. The horrible irony about Moussaoui and information sharing is that Al Qaeda didn’t know he’d been apprehended until after September 11. According to the 9/11 Commission report, if Osama bin Laden had been aware of it beforehand, he might have called off the operation.

What’s going on here? The most likely explanation is that Rice is thinking of Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the five hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. The CIA knew that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were in the U.S. but did not immediately and fully share this information with the FBI.

In other words, Rice can’t be bothered to remember the most basic facts when coming up with excuses for herself. That’s the level of contempt she has for us.

In other words, Rice can’t be bothered to remember the most basic facts when coming up with excuses for herself. That’s the level of contempt she has for us. She says the government’s failure to stop 9/11 still “haunts” her, but she’s not haunted enough to go back and read a few Wikipedia articles.

Then there’s the Iraq War. “Every intelligence agency in the world,” Rice tells us, “including the Russians, for instance, believed that [Saddam Hussein] was reconstituting his weapons of mass destruction.”

Let’s again recall the documented past. Here’s what Russian President Vladimir Putin said in October 2002 while standing next to British Prime Minister Tony Blair:

Russia does not have in its possession any trustworthy data that supports the existence of nuclear weapons or any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and we have not received any such information from our partners as yet.

Blair obviously heard and understood this, because he responded, “There may be a difference of perspective about weapons of mass destruction, there is one certain way to find out and that is to let the [United Nations] inspectors back in to do their job.”

You’d also hope Rice would be interested enough in this issue to know by now what top CIA analysts believed. The head of Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control Center, the division at the agency tasked with investigating Iraq’s purported WMD, told a friend just before the war that he anticipated that the U.S. would find “not much, if anything.”

Finally, by putting the blame on “intelligence” for the disastrous decisions of the Bush administration, Rice is engaging in a kind of meta-dishonesty, no matter what the intelligence was. One of Rice’s predecessors as secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, explained this cogently in a book with the same title as this MasterClass, “Diplomacy”:

What political leaders decide, intelligence services tend to seek to justify. Popular literature and films often depict the opposite — policymakers as the helpless tools of intelligence experts. In the real world, intelligence assessments more often follow than guide policy decisions.

Albright’s performance is just as shabby. At one point, she describes her pre-secretary of state role during Clinton’s first term as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Iraq had been under severe sanctions since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The sanctions were then extended after the Gulf War in 1991 as leverage to force Iraq to disclose and destroy all of its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. “It was my job to make sure all of the [sanctions] resolutions were carried out,” Albright tells us.

The problem here is that Albright herself later explicitly explained that the U.S. would defy the relevant U.N. resolutions. Security Council Resolution 687 declared that once Iraq had been disarmed, the sanctions “shall have no further force or effect.” But just after Albright became secretary of state in 1997, she said this in a speech at Georgetown University on U.S policy toward Iraq:

We do not agree with the nations who argue that, if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted.

In other words, it didn’t matter what the U.N. resolutions said: The sanctions would remain indefinitely.

Albright’s adamantine commitment to the sanctions regime led to her being questioned about it on “60 Minutes,” when she infamously declared that the suffering sanctions imposed on Iraqis was “worth it.”

Incredibly enough, Albright also doesn’t voice any second thoughts now that we know Iraq had destroyed all of its banned weapons in 1991. By 1995, the Iraqi regime had been forced to hand over the last remnants of its WMD programs, the paper documentation. In other words, everything about the policy Albright carried out was based on a bogus premise. But she makes no mention of this at all.


U.S. Vows to Hunt Russian War Criminals — but Gives a Pass to Its Own

A smaller but intriguing falsehood comes when Albright looks straight into the camera and says, “It had never occurred to me that I could be secretary of state.” This is obviously ridiculous on its face; no one rises to that level without making prodigious efforts to do so. Albright shouldn’t be criticized for this particular lie — as she puts it, “The word ‘ambitious’ is something that men say lovingly or proudly to other men, but if they call a woman ambitious, it’s supposed to be derogatory.” But it’s preposterous for her to claim she somehow became secretary of state by accident — especially because her efforts involved such gruesome realpolitik.

Her campaign to secure the position kicked into high gear as soon as Clinton was reelected on November 5, 1996. One stratagem in particular raised her stock in the White House: Her successful termination of the career of then-U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

The previous August, Israel had bombed a U.N. peacekeeping compound in Lebanon, killing 106 civilians taking shelter there. The U.N. investigated and, much to the anger of Israel and the U.S., found that it was “unlikely” that the compound had not been knowingly targeted.

While Boutros-Ghali’s term was about to expire, he was popular and was expected to be reappointed. Albright plotted to stop this in order to punish him for the U.N.’s distasteful description of Israel’s actions.

A few weeks after Clinton won, Albright had a private dinner with Boutros-Ghali and urged him to voluntarily step down, promising him a foundation to run in Switzerland. He declined. Two days later on November 19, the U.N. Security Council voted 14-1 to give Boutros-Ghali a second term. The lone “no” vote was cast by Albright, and since the U.S. holds a veto on the Security Council, the resolution failed. The New York Times said, attributing the perspective to an anonymous American official, that “hostility toward the United States had never been so palpable.”

But this was irrelevant to Albright, whose priorities lay elsewhere. As Richard Clarke, then a National Security Council official, later wrote, “Clinton was impressed that we [had] managed to oust Boutros-Ghali. … The entire operation had strengthened Albright’s hand in the competition to be Secretary of State in the second Clinton administration.”

All this said, it’s unfair to claim that Rice and Albright never come up with anything that’s interesting and true. Both of them do so once. Surprisingly, neither anomaly occurs when they reflect on their trailblazing status at the top of the State Department. This suggests that they are diplomatically holding back, given that they must have crossed paths with some extraordinarily awful men.

For Rice’s part, she tells an extremely charming story about her parents, and how when she was 4, they started holding elections for president of the family, complete with secret ballots. Rice won, and was reelected over and over, since her mother always voted for her and there were no term limits.

Albright’s father was a Czech diplomat and academic (who actually inspired Rice when he had her as a student at the University of Denver). Albright explains that in Czechoslovakia and Europe generally, diplomacy was purely a province of society’s elites. So, she says, he was pleasantly surprised when teaching in America to run into his students working as waiters or at gas stations.

The MasterClass website features many other videos — starring people like musician John Legend, filmmaker James Cameron, and screenwriter/producer Shonda Rhimes — but none of them deliver the same sense of spiritual desolation as Rice and Albright. Of course, none of the other “masters” are skilled practitioners of U.S. foreign policy.

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