SPIEGEL Interview with Condoleezza Rice 'I Don't Have to Sell the President'

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discusses what went wrong in Iraq, growing up in the segregated south and her "unbreakable bond" with President George W. Bush.

Editor's note: The following questions are outtakes from interviews conducted by SPIEGEL reporter Marc Hujer for a profile of the Secretary of State  that ran on this site earlier this week.

SPIEGEL: Madame Secretary, what do you think are going to be judged as your major achievements at the end of this administration?

Rice: One of the hardest questions to answer is what in history will have mattered, and I'm enough of a historian to know that those are judgments that are made many years from now. But if I had to look at the period and try to make a judgment now, I would say that, first and foremost, the administration has protected, nurtured and tightened our key alliances around the world in very fundamental ways -- whether through the expansion and then transformation of NATO, an alliance that in 1990 and 1991 everyone was questioning whether there was still a need for. But probably the overwhelming one, from my point of view, is to have brought democracy into the heart of the Middle East. I think Iraq will emerge as a country that is the first really democratic, multi-sectarian state in the Middle East, and that will have a fundamental effect on the rest of the region.

SPIEGEL: If you look back, are there any mistakes you made or things you would handle differently if you had to do it again?

Rice: Oh, I'm sure there are many …

SPIEGEL: … You once famously said that you made at least a thousand tactical errors.

Rice: Well, I also say I did a thousand things today, which isn't little, but I'm sure that when you are involved in big, history-changing events, with hindsight you can see many things that could have been done better. In Iraq, for instance, we probably concentrated too much on Baghdad and not enough on the provincial leadership and local authority. Looking at things now, it seems that the relationship between local authority and central authority is what is really moving Iraq forward.

I don't know that that option was available to us in 2003, but it seems funny in retrospect that a country that has a federal system like the United States didn't concentrate on that. I have spent most of my life in Colorado, California and Alabama, and those states would never look to Washington to solve all of their problems.

SPIEGEL: What other mistakes have been made?

Rice: I've said before that I don't think we handled Kyoto well. We said in the campaign that we would not support Kyoto. In a 99:0 vote, the US Senate said it would not support Kyoto. We didn't think it was going to be a big surprise when we said we weren't going to back it. But perhaps we could have found a better way to say it.

SPIEGEL: Sept. 11 was a shock to everybody, it generated a huge outpouring of emotions. Do you think your administration overreacted?

Rice: I was talking to somebody about this recently. Seven years have passed since 9/11, and it's hard to remember all the details of that day and what followed. I like to relate a story of what it was like that day. I got the first call standing by my desk getting ready to go to an educational event. When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, my assistant came in and said a plane has hit the World Trade Center, and I said what a strange accident. At first I thought it might even have been a small plane, but then he said, "no, it's a commercial plane." The president called, and I said a plane's hit the World Trade Center, and he said that's a very strange accident. He asked me to keep him informed.

I went downstairs, held my staff meeting. By the time I had got about three people into the room, the assistant said a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought, my God, this is a terrorist attack, and I went into the back of the situation room. (then-CIA chief) George Tenet had already gone to his secure location and Colin Powell was en route. Then a plane had hit the Pentagon. The Secret Service came in and said you have to go to the bunker, and I said I have to call the president. When I telephoned him, I said you can't come back here. Washington is under attack.

As an old student of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, I did a lot of nuclear war games during my training, and two things occurred to me that day. One was to contact the Russians. And then I called the State Department and told them to send out a worldwide paper. I could only imagine the pictures around the world -- the Twin Towers down, the Pentagon hit, no clear idea of what happened and a president who was nowhere to be seen. A little less than three weeks later, we had the anthrax scares.

Most of the people who were responsible for 9/11 are now in custody or have been killed. But there are others, and they plot and they plan, and they hope to pull it off again. And while we have to be right 100 percent of the time, they only have to be right once. So there's no way to overreact to that.

SPIEGEL: The inappropriate reaction of this administration when Hurricane Katrina hit was a big blow to its reputation.

Rice: The problems go back to all levels in response to this overwhelming and unprecedented natural disaster. My father is from Louisiana, and he was 81 years old at the time of Katrina. I remember as a little girl he used to talk about his great fear growing up that the Mississippi would overrun its banks and the levies would break. And so it was unprecedented. And we have a federal system that responds. The first response is always local, then the state, then the federal. Now most people are saying the federal government responded late because that's the structure of the system.

But the piece that I have never understood is the argument -- and I thoroughly rejected it -- that somehow the President of the United States was not responding because these weren't white people. That's an outrageous allegation, and anybody who said that should have been called to account for it.

You want to see whether somebody has racial attitudes or not, see if they're comfortable with people of other races -- and he is comfortable. I know the way this president is with all minorities and particularly with African-Americans, and he was really wronged.

SPIEGEL: You were on a private shopping trip to New York at the time Katrina hit. As the highest ranking African-American in government, didn't you have an obligation to stay in Washington and show the people in Louisiana that you were there for them?

Rice: It's actually an important lesson for me because I had become secretary in late January 2005. I travel endlessly, I work really, really hard, but all this is nothing. I took a little vacation to New York. When I left, Katrina looked bad, and when I arrived in New York on that Wednesday night, I said, let me know if anything is needed. We were starting to get donations and offers of help from around the world. I set up a system so that we could make sure we let FEMA and others know what offers of assistance were coming in internationally. I thought that was my role.

The next day I was really surprised to hear people asking, Why are you in New York? I called the president and said: I'm going to go back because it looks just awful. He said good, and we raced to get back in three hours.

SPIEGEL: Major issues like the Iraq war angered a lot of people in Europe. Do you think it was a tough job to sell President Bush abroad?

Rice: Well, I don't have to sell the president. He does a pretty good job himself. Of course, we as Americans like to believe that we're loved in international politics or that people like what we're doing. But we also recognize that we have an extraordinary responsibility to do what we think is right, and that sometimes what we do is not very popular.

I'm old enough to have been through these cycles before in US-European relations. I remember when Ronald Reagan was president. It was at the time when we were going to deploy missiles in Germany in response to the Soviet SS-20 threat. There were millions of people in the streets of Europe protesting American nuclear policies. And so I tend to take the long view, not that of what the polls say today or tomorrow. I drive through the streets of London and Paris with the president, and I see the people on the sides of the street waving at him and taking pictures. I walk into a hotel with him, and the hotel staff runs to have their pictures taken with the president. So sometimes I think that this is something that, quite frankly and bluntly, is in the salons of Europe not in the streets. Ultimately, the president will always do, and this is something you want in an American president, what he believes is right.

Is America Ready for a Black President?

SPIEGEL: You have a special personal relationship with the president. How is that possible that a person as interested in fine arts as you could get along as well as you have with a man perceived by many to be a cowboy?

Rice: He loves the fine arts, he loves country music and I don't. First of all, the president and I got to know each other well before he entered the White House. I met him when he had just been elected as governor of Texas in 1995. When he was thinking about a presidential run in 1998, his father invited me to Kennebunkport to vacation for a few days, and he was there. And we do share an interest in fitness and sports, and so we spent the time working out and talking about what foreign policy would be like.

SPIEGEL: So what do you like about him?

Rice: He's just a very genuine and down-to-earth person. He has friends from all walks of life, and the most important thing about the president and the first lady is they have friends from when they were children in junior high school and when they were in college and when they were young married people in Texas, and that says something to me about them because if your friends stay with you that long, it means that you've been loyal to them. That means more to me than whether he likes country music and I like Brahms.

SPIEGEL: You spend a lot of time with him, even on weekends and holidays.

Rice: He's very nice to be around. He and Laura Bush have invited my family to Camp David for Thanksgiving, and he sits with my 72-year-old retired school principal aunt and she feels absolutely comfortable -- he's less the President of the United States and more like a host making her feel welcome. In policy terms, you go though something like Sept. 11, and that's a bond that is unbreakable between him and me and others who were part of it.

SPIEGEL: You grew up in the segregated south, in Birmingham. But your parents shielded you from the worst. You never said you felt bitter about this time. Did it help you to deal better within a society that is predominantly white?

Rice: Well, I grew up in a very loving middle class family. My parents were educators. I'm not even the first PhD in my family. They tried to shield me -- just as other parents in my neighborhood tried to shield their children. But you knew there was a reason that you couldn't go to that theme park or to a movie theater or to a hamburger stand. They couldn't shield you completely.

What they did though was they never let it be an excuse for not achieving, and they always said racism is somebody else's problem, not yours. They tried in that way not to make us bitter about Birmingham.

It worked pretty well, but 1963 was a tough year. There were bombs in our neighborhood. There were White Knight riders who would come through the neighborhoods, and this led my father and his friends to literally take up arms to protect the neighborhood, with their guns. I lost a classmate in the Birmingham church fire. So, yeah, it's not something that you simply push away; it's there.

SPIEGEL: Did you experience racism?

RICE: Oh, sure. Usually in very subtle ways. I remember classes in college where the professor was espousing certain theories about how blacks were inherently less intelligent. But I learned a long time ago to give people the benefit of the doubt, not to assume that somebody was reacting to you because of race.

SPIEGEL: Do you think America is ready for a black President?

Rice: Of course it is. America is a remarkable place in that social attitudes change almost imperceptibly, and then you wake up the next day and they've changed. But they've been changing all the time. It has almost been 12 years since America last had a white male secretary of state. I don't think anybody spends much time thinking about it. There are black CEO's of some of the largest companies -- Time-Warner, American Express. The most popular golfer in America is black.

SPIEGEL: Most African-Americans vote for the Democrats. What led you to choose the Republican Party?

Rice: In 1976, the first time I was old enough to vote in a presidential election, I was attracted to Jimmy Carter. But in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, I was really appalled by our response, and I voted for Ronald Reagan. It took a few more years before I actually joined the Republican Party.

SPIEGEL: You seem to be very ambitious. When you realized that you couldn't reach excellence on the piano, you gave up and switched to foreign affairs?

Rice: I studied piano from the age of three. My grandmother taught piano. I stayed at her house during the day while my parents worked. I obviously wanted to learn to play. And so she asked if she could teach me, and my mother said don't you think she's too young. My grandmother apparently said no. So I could read music before I could read, and I really don't remember learning to read music. So for me it's like a native language. When I look at a sheet of music, it just makes sense. And so I went off to college, expecting to be a concert musician. In music school I heard all of these kids who were just unbelievable. You can be very, very good, but there's something that separates very, very good from great, and I knew that I wasn't great.

SPIEGEL: But you still play quiet frequently?

RICE: Once a month I play with a chamber music quartet. I play almost no solo music anymore because I so enjoy the interaction. The members of my quartet have become some of my best friends and so I really enjoy it now in ways that I didn't before.

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