Since this young Sovietologist first appeared in President George Bush Sr.'s staff, and especially with the prominent roles she played with Bush Jr., the question of competence has always crept up, though surely tempered by the race and gender factor. A recent example is former fellow cabinet member Donald Rumsfeld deriding her lack of experience in managing large organizations, blaming her for numerous mistakes of the day. As a Sovietologist myself, I can also recall an earlier event with her fingerprints -- Bush Sr.'s ridiculed "Chicken Kiev" plea, urging the Soviet republics not to secede just months before the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.
The most controversial clusters of Rice's decision-making involve the former Soviet bloc and the agitated post-9/11 world. But there is an overlooked decision involving Mexico that can shed some light on her style, and should be re-evaluated by the Republican establishment.
In April 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush injected himself in the Mexican presidential election when he tacitly endorsed a former political-police chief aiming to continue the 71-year dominance of the PRI, the corrupt one-party Mexican regime. This candidate, Francisco Labastida, was not there in Los Angeles that April 7th to hear Bush speak of the coincidences in their platforms and how they would cooperate as presidents, apparently because of fear of arrest. The Washington Times had hinted that Labastida, as a former governor of a troubled drug-trafficking state, may have been blacklisted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, as a narco-politician. Instead, it was his wife that had the distinct honor of meeting with an effusive candidate Bush that day.
Against Labastida was Vicente Fox, candidate of the National Action Party, or PAN, and the surprise eventual winner.
It fell upon me to convince the Bush campaign to retract or at least balance what we then thought was an honest mistake. We offered Rice and Robert Zoellick, our counterparts handling international affairs for Bush, for their boss to meet with Fox's daughter in public. Both repeatedly refused. During my email and telephone communications with them, it became increasingly clear that the endorsement had not been accidental. Mr. Zoellick, who went on to become the director of the World Bank, even scoffed at the notion that Fox could win. Rice was more polite, but let it be known the decision was non-negotiable.
Of course, Fox was briefed on these slights, which compounded yet another. The daughter of Albert P. Gore's campaign manager Tony Coelho was working full time in Mexico City for Labastida's campaign.
When Fox won, he forced both Bush and Gore to call repeatedly before taking their congratulatory calls.
But these maneuvers had more profound consequences.
Since out of deference we did not share the seedy details of these incidents with the press until well over a year later, this tit-for-tat may explain the paradox noticed by some followers of Mexican politics: Why it was that after a refreshingly pro-American stance by candidate Fox (whose grandfather hailed from Ohio), President Fox appointed mainly anti-American figures to handle foreign policy (angering Republican specialists such as Roger Noriega, soon-to-be top diplomat for the region, who in writing charged this would derail goodwill), worked at counter-purpose with the U.S. on a range of issues, noisily withdrew Mexico from the Rio Treaty (the hemispheric NATO)-even cold-shouldering the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks. In his autobiography (with Rob Allyn), Fox repeatedly attacked Bush in highly personal terms. Needless to say, the picture-perfect potential partnership between both boot-wearing leaders was aborted.
Openly or covertly interjecting in the domestic politics of another country by the United States is relatively rare but can be justified under certain circumstances.
In her classic 1979 article "Dictatorships and Double Standards," Jeane J. Kirkpatrick argued that supporting traditional and relatively friendly authoritarian dictators (à la Somoza, Sukarno, the PRI or the Shah of Iran) is justified when the alternative is revolutionary, totalitarian forces such as communists or Islamic fundamentalists. This "Kirkpatrick Doctrine" (aka Reagan Doctrine) helped ease communism's demise and has influenced Republican thinking ever since.
Bush's tacit endorsement of Labastida was a defective version of another precedent: The 1988 post-electoral endorsement of Labastida's predecessor, Carlos Salinas, by U.S. vice president and presidential candidate George H.W. Bush. Salinas had declared victory in what most Mexicans considered a fraudulent election in 1988. The likely real victor, the leftist Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, decided not to mobilize angry mobs against the regime and instead followed a peaceful, legal path that eventually fizzled. But a key event was the unequivocal endorsement of a teetering Salinas by Bush Sr.
This endorsement was eventually seen as a homerun in Republican foreign-policy circles, since it abided by the Kirkpatrick Doctrine and even delivered unexpected windfalls to the United States. The Harvard-trained Salinas went on to adopt economic reforms the U.S. had been urging upon the crisis-ridden Mexico for decades. To this day, Salinas and Bush Sr. are close personal friends.
It was logical for Bush Sr. to take that gamble in 1988. The Soviet Union could at any moment reactivate its mischief in Latin America. Cárdenas, with close relations with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, was running on the Communist Party slot. Mexico, of course, had always been a principle target of Cuba and the USSR. As we learned from archival research by Kate Doyle, the U.S. national-security establishment had for decades knitted a close but discreet relation with its counterparts in Mexico to thwart Cuban machinations. Bush's family, including the patriarch, Senator Prescott Bush, had unusually close personal and business relations with the PRI politicos going back decades.
As with 1988, the 2000 election was that time every twelve years when Mexico and the United States have concurrent presidential campaigns (the Mexican single-term president lasts 6 years). In both, a Bush was running. However, this time the context was quite different.
Bush Jr.'s endorsement of Labastida can be compared to buying a high-risk, low-yield bond. Unlike the 1988 high-risk but high-yield gamble by his father, it was never clear what the advisors of Bush Jr. hoped to achieve. At the very least, they could have waited until after that election to throw Bush's weight behind a convenient candidate -- as his father had wisely done 12 years earlier.
Kirkpatrick herself lived to question the wisdom of the April 2000 decision ("I have no idea what they were thinking."). By then, the USSR had long since vanished and the main opponent to the PRI was not Cárdenas, but a former Coca-Cola executive whose Christian-democratic party had long advocated responsible economic management, middle-class values -- and good relations with the United States.
What comes in for particular concern is that Bush Jr. made the centerpiece of his foreign policy the active promotion of democracy abroad, especially spreading democratic contagion in the Middle East -- even at the expense of traditional allies. Their action in Mexico -- supporting a dictatorial party against a democratic one -- was an unexplained aberration.
To her credit, Rice did apologize (in Russian actually) after an hour-long meeting with our delegation in Philadelphia during the Republican convention that August. By then, Fox had won and of course she was very eager to make amends. Candidate Bush had even suddenly announced that Mexico would be his top foreign-policy priority, showering praise on Fox. But all that smacked of patronizing catch-up back in Mexico.
We recall that many Republican foreign-policy wonks were outraged with the Bush types in that Machiavellian mess-up, having supported the PAN even in the darkest moments. Those true believers include the "Reaganaut" types Noriega, Caleb McCarry, the late Constantine Menges, Kirkpatrick herself, Herman Pirchner, J. Michael Waller, Dan Fisk, Steve Johnson, and a few others I mentioned in gratitude 10 years ago in the Fox campaign's book of memories. Dick Morris, a Republican but whom most associate with Bill Clinton, was working arduously to help Fox get elected. When you are trying to sell in Washington a democratic candidate that nobody expects to win, that is when you know who is who.
Though not meriting a "Who Lost Mexico?" headline, the cheap realpolitik maneuver by Rice and Zoellick in 2000 wasted a perfect opportunity for the U.S. to build a lasting partnership with a new democratic Mexico, and sadly obfuscated the long history of Republican support for the PAN and for Mexican democratic reforms.
The most important lesson of Bush Jr.'s decision was its blatant contradiction not only of Republican (and even American) foreign-policy principles as embodied by the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, but also, most obviously, of his own neo-conservative "doctrine" of actively spreading democracy abroad. It also foreshadowed the limits and particular management style of Bush Jr.'s closest foreign-policy advisors, as America was about to embark on a demanding and unforgiving post-9/11 world. If only all their foreign mistakes had resulted in just the forgettable incident with Fox and Mexico.
Fredo Arias-King was senior advisor to the PAN party and the Vicente Fox presidential campaign in Mexico, 1999-2000.