Condoleezza Rice made her first public speaking appearance in Washington on Sunday night since the Bush adminstration ended — and it was at a fundraiser for a D.C. Jewish day school. Here’s the brief:
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Condoleezza Rice defended the United States’ decision to hold Palestinian elections in 2006, even though Hamas won.
"What is the alternative?" the former secretary of state asked, speaking at a fundraiser for the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. "If you don’t start and give people a chance" then they’re not going to buy into the process of building democratic institutions, she said.
Rice noted that politics was already "going on" in the West Bank and Gaza before the elections, pointing out that Hamas was better organized in the mosques and many Palestinians believed Fatah was corrupt.
"You don’t fix that by not having elections," she said. "I’m afraid we’re going to have to tolerate some elections" initially in the Islamic world in which the U.S. doesn’t like the result, she said, adding that while Islamists did well in the first set of elections in Iraq, they did far less well in the next round of voting.
The program featured a short speech by Rice, and then she engaged in an hour-long dialogue –which included answering written audience questions — with Leon Wiesletier, literary editor of The New Republic and a parent at the school.
Responding to Wieseltier’s question about "the T word," torture, Rice said the decision to use enhanced interrogation techniques on prisoners was "very hard" and that she believes it is an appropriate subject for debate.
She emphasized that the decision must be seen "in the context of remembering the time."
"People of goodwill had the hardest possible dilemmas and choices," she said. "This was tough stuff."
Rice also said that she had misspoken last week when she was quoted as saying that since the president authorized the tactics, they were legal. "What I meant to say is the president said, ‘I won’t authorize anything that is illegal,’" which is why she said President Bush sought an opinion from the Justice Department and the attorney general on the matter.
Asked about how she dealt with the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Rice said "You tell yourselves you did what you could." But, ultimately, she said, while you believe it in your head, "you don’t quite believe it in your heart" because "it happened on your watch."
Rice also reminisced about former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — calling him a "tough little tank driver" — and noted some of the smaller, less noticed accomplishments of her tenure in the Middle East. For instance, she was proud of working with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to create youth centers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — thus helping to keep Palestinian youngsters away from being drawn into the world of terrorism and suicide bombing. And she said that when looking at the Middle East, one should be optimistic. Pointing to the changes that happened in Eastern Europe in just a few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s — and even the changes in the Middle East from 2001 to the present — she noted that things that once seemed impossible can one day appear "inevitable."
Earlier in the day, Rice spoke to students at the school and was questioned by a fourth-grader about torture. Her answer, according to the Washington Post, was similar to what she told the adults later in the day:
Rice took the question in stride. saying that she was reluctant to criticize Obama, then getting to the heart of the matter.
"Let me just say that President Bush was very clear that he wanted to do everything he could to protect the country. After September 11, we wanted to protect the country," she said. "But he was also very clear that we would do nothing, nothing, that was against the law or against our obligations internationally. So the president was only willing to authorize policies that were legal in order to protect the country."
She added: "I hope you understand that it was a very difficult time. We were all so terrified of another attack on the country. September 11 was the worst day of my life in government, watching 3,000 Americans die. . . . Even under those most difficult circumstances, the president was not prepared to do something illegal, and I hope people understand that we were trying to protect the country."