Despite the protests that greeted Condoleeza Rice and the students that attended her talk on Nov. 30 in Claremont McKenna College’s (CMC) Ducey Gymnasium, the former U.S. Secretary of State largely avoided controversy in both her prepared remarks and in the Q&A session that followed.
Still, Rice did not shy away from tackling student questions about the Obama administration’s recent assassination of U.S. citizen and alleged al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki and the Bush administration’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” during her tenure as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State.
She maintained that military actions such as that used against al-Awlaki are legal and not “extra-judicial.” She described the use of such actions as analogous to the Bush administration’s position regarding controversial interrogation techniques like waterboarding.
“[The Obama administration] acted on the basis of the Justice Department’s determination [about what was legal],” Rice said. “President Bush did exactly that with enhanced interrogation techniques. And so, in this way what’s fair for the goose is what’s fair from the gander.”
Rice also defended the Obama administration’s campaign of unmanned drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere. However, she acknowledged that such tactics were fraught with difficult legal questions.
“I don’t think that we have international law that covers the variety of different mechanisms that we are now using to deal with terrorism,” she said. “I don’t think that that means the President of the United States can stop [using them], because he has to protect the country. But I do think that the international legal norms have to catch up.”
Rice also acknowledged her ambivalence about the use of controversial tactics.
“While I support what was done with al-Awlaki, I will tell you that it makes me a bit queasy,” she said.
Multiple students asked Rice about her experience as a woman of color in higher education and in politics. She answered that being a woman was not a “hindrance” for her work in the White House.
“[President Bush] wasn’t given to treating women badly,” she said, referring to the respect the former President accorded to his wife, Laura, and strong-willed mother, Barbara. “I think he would have heard about it at home.”
On her gender, Rice said, “I usually found it to be more of an asset than a liability, to be frank.”
She did, however, acknowledge the difficulty of being a Soviet specialist in a traditionally male-dominated field.
Along with the serious questions posed to Rice, the evening was punctuated by moments of levity. She began the event by remarking on 9/11 and the changes it brought, but her memories from that day were not entirely grave.
“When the Secret Service wants to get you someplace, they don’t so much escort you there. They kind of pick you up and push you toward the bunker,” she said. “So I have this vague recollection of being kind of levitated toward the bunker.”
Rice also took questions about her publicly-declared desire to be Commissioner of the National Football League (NFL) and the crush that former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was reported to have on her. Gaddafi once presented Rice with a video that included footage of her meeting with world leaders against the backdrop of a song called “Black Flower in the White House,” which he commissioned for the occasion. Rice reflected on the dictator’s recent demise.
“As he was going down for the last time, I was very glad that we had disarmed him of his most dangerous weapon,” Rice said of Gaddafi’s discontinued nuclear weapons program. “I’m quite sure that if he’d had them in those last days he might have used them. So I think it was work well done, but, yeah, it was kind of creepy.”
Still, Rice had dire proclamations about a number of international issues, including escalating tensions with Iran.
“Iran is the most dangerous country in the world right now,” she said. “It’s the poster child for state sponsorship of terrorism.”
“They are close enough [to getting a nuclear weapon] that we need to do something dramatic pretty soon,” she added. “I would hope that we never have to use military power, although the President of the United States should never take that option off the table.”
Rice’s harsh words were not only reserved for foreign nations. U.S. domestic policies came under close scrutiny early in her remarks.
“We’re not having a very healthy discussion right now about immigration,” she said. “I’m not sure when immigrants became the enemy, but the United States of America will do itself in if we don’t recognize the power of immigration.”
Rice also defended the controversial Iraq War that was launched during her tenure as National Security Advisor, though she acknowledged that this defense was not without qualification.
“I will never, ever be able to fully live down all the lives that were lost in that war,” Rice said. “But I also know that nothing of value was ever won without sacrifice, and I’m often glad that we’re not sitting here talking about an arms race—a nuclear arms race—between Iran’s Ahmadinejad and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And that’s exactly where we would be.”
Regarding the protests that continued during her speech from outside the fences surrounding the gym, Rice offered cautionary advice.
“I have no problem with protests,” she said. “This country was born in protest. But when people protest, they need to be sure that they’re not getting in the way of others who want to have a civil dialogue about differences.”