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Rice rewrites history on ‘60 Minutes’

By Eugene Robinson

"Nobody can go back and reinvent the past," Condoleezza Rice told Katie Couric on "60 Minutes" Sept. 24. But this nugget of truth came amid a flood of retrospective reinvention in which Rice equated the war in Iraq with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s — and left me wondering whether I was hearing polished sophistry or a case of total denial.

That quote from the secretary of state came in response to a question about whether the administration would handle Iraq the same way if it had known then what it knows now — that there were no weapons of mass destruction, among other inconvenient facts. Rice has acknowledged that mistakes were made in the conduct of the war, but she made clear Sunday that even now she would support the decision to invade.

The interview was prerecorded, so Couric didn't get to ask about the new National Intelligence Estimate — representing the consensus view of the government's 16 spy agencies — concluding that the Iraq War has poured fuel on the jihadist fire worldwide, and that the threat from terrorism is rising, not ebbing. But we can assume that this obvious fact has not escaped Rice's attention, and I wouldn't expect one of the officials who ordered the invasion (she was national security adviser at the time) to confess that the whole thing was a tragic misadventure.

What I would expect from Rice, however, is a better understanding of the history of the civil rights movement and the lessons it taught, or should have taught, the nation and the world.

Rice famously grew up in Birmingham at the height of the civil rights movement. I say famously because she has used her personal biography as a tool of diplomacy, drawing this parallel between the crusade to win freedom and opportunity for African-Americans and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Rice equates the racists who bombed Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four young girls — including Denise McNair, a childhood playmate — with modern-day suicide bombers who kill in the name of jihad. "Some people say, well, they do it to prove a political point," she said. "Then why go after little girls? Or innocent people standing at a bus stop in Britain or in Madrid?"

That sounds good, but when you think about it, it doesn't mean much of anything. Yes, terrorism in every instance is abhorrent. But you don't fight terrorism, you fight terrorists, and not all terrorists are alike.

More to the point, I too grew up in the South during the last throes of Jim Crow segregation. I don't see how anyone could come out of that milieu without feeling that the violence waged back then by the Ku Klux Klan and other white racists was a very specific, highly personal form of terrorism.

Just a few hundred yards from my house, three black students were killed in a 1968 demonstration that had begun over a segregated bowling alley. I remember waking up one morning and seeing a dozen highway patrol cars parked across the street, the officers crouched with their rifles trained at a house two doors from mine. They were looking for the supposed "outside agitator" who was stirring up all the local colored folk, but fortunately he was long gone.

That's one essential difference that Rice ignores — that during the civil rights era, the terrorism was of the kind we would now call "state-sponsored." It was of the powerful over the powerless, not the other way around.

In her interview with Couric, Rice went on to argue that critics of the administration's Middle East policies are like the racists who contended that black Americans were not ready to participate in democracy because they were "kind of childlike" and couldn't handle the vote. But that's a bizarre analogy. The last stand by white racists against integration and voting rights for African-Americans wasn't about patronizing attitudes some whites might have held, it was about power. It was about the knowledge that blacks were not just ready but determined to exercise the vote.

She makes it sound as if those who disagree with the administration are standing in the schoolhouse door. But no one wants to deny Iraqis or anyone else the chance to practice democracy. The question is whether democracy should, or can, be imposed at the point of a gun.

If Rice really believes what she says, then why does she shun the democratically elected Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority? Are the Palestinians childlike and not ready for the vote?

Or is our Middle East policy such a mess that it has to be veiled in rewritten history?

Washington Post Writers Group
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