By Alexis Simendinger – November 13, 2012
NAPLES, Fla. — On the paid-to-opine circuit, former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright circled the world, and each other, with raw disagreements over Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction Monday, but settled into polite accord over their worries about the future of drone warfare and the importance of China.
For an audience of invited attendees at the Global Financial Leadership Conference, presented by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group, it was an entertaining after-dinner sparring match moderated by former ABC News veteran Ted Koppel.
Just a week after a suspenseful election, it was also a way to gauge the global challenges facing the Obama administration through the eyes of a Democrat who backed the president and a Republican who said she favored Mitt Romney’s policies.
“I will be praying for Barack Obama,” keynote speaker Rice said as she kicked off the two-day conference about global markets. America’s leadership depends on the country’s economic and fiscal destiny, she argued, and the president’s first project is to reckon with a collection of tax hikes and across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect in January. As a conservative, she continued, she favors entitlement cuts and tax reforms, including the possible elimination of some deductions (but not higher marginal rates that might impact small businesses), and she said she would support putting Pentagon spending on the chopping block.
When asked, Rice said she would not consider a run for president or public office in 2016. “I don’t really love politics,” she explained. “I love policy. . . . I’ve done it.”
Hours later, dressed in a black cocktail suit and pearls, the Stanford University professor joined Albright, a global consultant who sported one of her jumbo pins shaped like a dolphin, for a dinner conversation that came off as a mash-up of “Nightline” and the “Charlie Rose” show.
Between these two former secretaries of state who served presidents of divergent ideologies and during unique world crises, there were rear-view-mirror jabs. When Albright, whom President Clinton named as the nation’s first female secretary of state, observed that Obama looked for “partners” more than adversaries, Rice shot back: “It’s true — he didn’t look for adversaries, but they found him.”
As President George W. Bush’s national security adviser and then his secretary of state, Rice was an uncommonly close presidential partner through 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the Bush administration’s subsequent admissions that Saddam Hussein possessed no weapons of mass destruction, as had been asserted during the U.S. assault on al-Qaeda.
“I didn’t know he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East,” Rice said defensively Monday night.
When Rice criticized Obama’s announced timetable to extricate U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014, Albright protested that the Bush White House missed the importance of Afghanistan from the outset. “You all took your eye off the ball,” she complained.
“Oh, Madeleine, come on!” Rice shot back as Koppel pretended to rise and tiptoe off the stage.
When Rice asserted that the 2011 capture and killing of Osama bin Laden had its intelligence roots in the enhanced interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohammed in 2007 under the Bush administration, Albright said dryly, “I’m really glad you take credit for that.” Rice replied that she was merely “making an argument for continuity,” observing that “it takes a few administrations” to accomplish achievements in many arenas of foreign policy.
The former secretaries also disagreed about the essence of the nation’s current budgetary crisis. Rice said the “really big problem” is entitlement spending projected to explode as a percentage of gross domestic product in the long term. (The audience of financial industry representatives applauded loudly.) Albright said the accumulated debt problem stems from a decade of Bush-era wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (She did not mention that Obama continued both wars using borrowed money.)
But looking ahead, the duo found issues on which they agree, and the government’s reliance on unmanned drones was one. Albright and Rice concurred that drone warfare saves American lives and is effective, but both expressed worries about the long-range implications and encouraged the Obama administration to focus during its second term on the issues surrounding deployment of such weapons.
Despite the administration’s unwillingness to acknowledge its covert drone program, an independent United Nations investigator, working through the U.N. Human Rights Council, recently pledged to launch an investigationinto the U.S. drone strikes and their deadly impact on civilians.
Albright said she was “not sure” about the human targets who wind up on the administration’s drone-strike lists, and she raised concerns about the use of unmanned drones by other nations. Rice predicted the technology “will become ubiquitous,” and she questioned how the United States would be able to protest if Russia decided to use drones domestically in Chechnya, or China used them against targets in Tibet.
“It makes me quite uncomfortable,” Rice said. A protocol or system for drone use looms ahead, she suggested.
On U.S. policy with China more generally, Albright and Rice agreed about the strategic importance of relations with the Chinese. Both advocated economic engagement, despite worries about Beijing’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea. “We need to lead with our economic foot, not our military foot,” Rice said, pointing to trade policy as an important and, she argued, neglected tool during Obama’s first term.
“We don’t need to go to war with China,” Albright said. “And I’m glad we don’t declare them a currency manipulator,” she added, taking a swipe at one of Romney’s oft-repeated campaign promises.