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Condoleezza Rice knows firsthand about leadership amid unthinkable crises. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The New Axis of Evil: Condoleezza Rice on War in Israel and a Changed World

The former secretary of state says an attack on Israel is an attack on America.

In the early hours of Saturday morning on October 7, Israel was invaded by Hamas terrorists by land, air, and sea, which The Free Press has been covering all week in detail. With over 1,300 Israeli civilians dead, hundreds taken hostage into Gaza, and many more in critical condition, this catastrophic and barbaric attack has been labeled “Israel’s 9/11.” 

This is something former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice knows about.

After all, Secretary Rice led our nation as national security adviser on September 11. As one of the most powerful people in the world at a turning point in American history, Secretary Rice knows firsthand about leadership amid unthinkable crises. She also knows firsthand about the intractable conflicts Israel has faced for decades, having served in both her national leadership roles through five Gaza wars and crises. 

Today, Secretary Rice discusses why this war is different than anything she has seen before in the region, whether the prospect for a two-state solution is over, what Iran’s role was in aiding Hamas, what Israel seeking normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia had to do with it, why America cannot afford to retreat from the world, and why Israel—and the world—will never be the same. 

Click here to listen to my full conversation with Secretary Rice below, or read an edited excerpt below.

On Hamas and the antithesis of liberation:

BW: The reporting that I have done this past week, and that we’ve seen all over the news and certainly all over social media, is unlike anything I have ever seen in my entire life. And the crimes that they have committed are unspeakable. You know this area of the world incredibly well. When you were secretary of state and national security adviser, you were in charge during five Gaza flare-ups or wars. How is what we are watching this week different from all of those things you oversaw when you were in the government? 

CR: I was absolutely shocked when I read the news on Saturday morning, and the extent of the barbarity and brutality. You’re right, I was there for five-plus Gaza crises during my time as national security adviser and as secretary of state, but it was different then. This was an invasion of Hamas and PIJ, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, onto Israeli territory to kill Israeli citizens, to massacre them, to cut the heads off of babies. This was untold brutality and like nothing we had seen in that regard. I think we have to call it out as something very different, because unlike the times before, when Iron Dome or the Israeli Defense Force was able to perhaps even proactively avoid or deter a major attack, this time Hamas succeeded, and it succeeded in horrific fashion. 

BW: We’re sitting here on Stanford’s campus right now, where on October 9, two days after the massacre, the University’s Student Affairs office refused to issue a statement and said that as an institution, “they do not take positions on geopolitical issues and news events.” Yet it took less than 24 hours for Stanford’s former president to condemn the war in Ukraine. Stanford also issued a statement from the president of the university on the day of January 6. After tremendous pressure from faculty and students, the interim Stanford president sent out an email a few days later that said, “We condemn all terrorism and mass atrocities. This includes the deliberate attack on civilians this weekend by Hamas.” Why did it take so long for a university, one of the greatest universities of higher education in the world, to issue a condemnation of sheer terror against innocent people in one of America’s greatest allies in the world, and what does it reveal about the moral rot at institutions like the one we’re sitting in right now? 

CR: I am glad that at Stanford, our president and provost issued the statement that did come out. Universities are complex organisms. There is always a lot of weighing of what to say and so forth. I did say to someone, “Look, this actually is not a communications challenge because it was a horrific terrorist attack on civilians and it wasn’t even just a terrorist attack; it was kidnappings, it was abducting people, threatening to eliminate or execute hostages and summarily shooting people at a music festival. This was nothing but a terrorist attack, and it’s not hard to say “we condemn terrorism.” I think that the statement that our provost and president did make is a good one, and I will stand by that one.

BW: There are student groups at some of our most elite universities, including Harvard. I’m sure you saw the statement signed by 32 Harvard student groups. There’s a clip I just watched of students at another university singing “Glory be to the martyrs.” Do you believe that this will be a watershed moment in terms of the moral outrage toward that position? 

CR: It can be. People ought to be educated about what’s going on here. The idea that Hamas is somehow the great liberator of the Palestinian people, or that Hamas is somehow representing the legitimate interests of the Palestinian people, is so far from the truth. I don’t know how anyone could think of Hamas as anything but a terrorist organization. It is actually declared a terrorist organization by the United States government and by all decent governments around the world. It is an organization that doesn’t even recognize the right of Israel to exist, and it is an organization that is dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel and to the extinguishing, in a sense, of Jewish identity in that state.

Hamas has time and time again crashed and dashed the legitimate hopes of the Palestinian people. Because every time we get close to a place where perhaps the Palestinians can have their state alongside the democratic state of Israel, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and their Iranian sponsors find a way to destroy that hope. So anybody who wants to say to me “This was about the plight of the Palestinian people,” I say, “Yeah, it is about the plight of the Palestinian people, and how Hamas has never cared about the plight of the Palestinian people. It has done everything that it can to keep the Palestinian people in bondage.”

On whether the two-state solution will survive:

BW: I have always supported the idea of a two-state solution.  The idea of Israel occupying another people seems to me that it would ultimately corrode the very soul of the Jewish state. But this week, I can’t help but think that if Israel had pulled out of the West Bank, Judea, and Samaria, as the Israeli left has long wanted, that there wouldn’t be another terrorist statelet at its border, and ultimately the total destruction of the Jewish state. What is the way out of that? 

CR: When I was secretary of state, I went to Israel and the Palestinian territories 24 times to try and find a way toward some kind of solution to this crisis. I went to Nablus after there had been terrorist activity and helped Salam Fayyad, a decent Palestinian leader, to build the equivalent of a Boys and Girls Club. I went to Bethlehem to help them open a hotel to try to give the Palestinians a tax base for a better life. I do think that there are reasonable, and indeed, decent Palestinian leaders who do see that future, but there hasn’t been enough courage to say to the Palestinian people that when there is a deal, both sides will have to give. The Israelis will have to give land. Some of those settlements will have to be given back, but the right of return isn’t going to happen. Millions of Palestinians are not going back to cities that are now Israeli cities, and that inability to come to grips with the truth of how we would get to a two-state solution was for me, extremely frustrating. I can tell you that at some point we’re going to have to try again. This has a larger context this time. Iran couldn’t stand that Israel was actually coming to an end of the state of war with its Arab neighbors. It already happened with the UAE, with Morocco and with others. It had long ago happened with Egypt, Jordan, and now possibly with Saudi Arabia. That would have been the end of the Arab pretense that Israel did not belong in the Middle East, and who would have been isolated? Iran. So when I hear and see statements like, “We don’t have evidence that the Iranians were involved.” Everybody knows that the Iranians are the funders, the trainers, the equippers of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. There is a history here to be written. Israel has not been perfect in this regard when it comes to settlements, etc., but there is so much to this story about the effort that Israeli leaders have made to make it possible for a Palestinian state, and that some decent Palestinian leaders have made. That story needs to be told.

On lessons from 9/11:

BW: You were the national security adviser on September 11, 2001, and a lot of people are saying that this is Israel’s 9/11. The death toll as of today stands at 1,200 people, which is proportionally ten times the loss of life in America on 9/11. People look at the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, they look at things like the Patriot Act and other surveillance systems. What lessons do you draw from the policies that America pursued in the aftermath of 9/11 that could serve as a lesson or a warning for the Israelis in this moment? 

CR: I’ve been saying to people, yes, it’s similar to 9/11, but plus. It’s as if somebody had gone into the suburbs of Buffalo and started massacring people. I will tell you that the day after 9/11, the only thing that we were thinking was, “Don’t let it happen again.” If you are in a position of authority when 3,000 people die—some of them jumping out of 80-story windows to their death—and by definition, you didn’t do enough, then you’re going to do everything that you can not to let it happen again, because you have such great remorse. While I understand that remorse is not a policy, I really challenge those who say we tried to do too much. I really challenge those who say that the Patriot Act was the wrong response, or that going into Afghanistan to try to clean up those terrorist nests was too much. I heard somebody say once—a very important American leader—that we led from fear. You bet we did. Every day we came in and every day there was a new plotline. One day it was that there was going to be a radiological attack on Washington, D.C., on the weekend of October 31. Another day it was that there was going to be a smallpox attack on the country. The next day it was that botulinum toxin had been released into the White House. Yeah, we lead from fear. So while I understand those who now want to second-guess what were some very tough decisions, the President said that, “Anything within our law and consistent with our values, we will do to protect the country.” My gratitude that there was not another attack on our territory in the time that we were there, my gratitude that I think we dismantled the kind of al-Qaeda that could do what they did. . . I’ll take the criticism that we did too much.

Now, what are the lessons for the Israelis? Well, in some ways, we were newer to this. There had not been a major attack on the territory of the United States since the War of 1812, but the shock to us was that our oceans didn’t protect us in the way that we had always assumed. That’s not the shock in Israel, because Israel has been under attack since its founding in 1948. The shock to Israel was that something of this magnitude and brutality could happen across its borders when I think the Israeli intelligence and Israeli military thought that they could really protect their country. Now, there will be a reckoning. There will be their equivalent of a 9/11 Commission. They will go back, they will look at what happened, why Israeli outposts were overrun, and if there was too much reliance on technology and not on human intelligence, and so on. For now, I think that the focus of the country is in the right place, which is to, in a unified way, try as quickly as possible to make sure that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad can’t do this again. 

On American weakness and internal division: 

BW: One of the things that happened in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was this idea that America does more harm than good when it attempts to be the world’s policeman. Do you think that that view is going to be reassessed not just in light of Hamas’s war against Israel, but Russia’s war against Ukraine, China’s potential war against Taiwan, and so on? How do you think we’re going to reassess the idea that American power is fundamentally a source for stability in the world? 

CR: If you really think the world is better off with Saddam Hussein murdering a million people and putting them in mass graves, be my guest. If you really think it was a better Afghanistan when women were beaten in stadiums, given to the Taliban by the UN, when girls and women couldn’t go to school, well be my guest. The United States is not a perfect power. There’s no such thing. But I would argue that on balance, the United States has been a force for stability in the world, that a lot of what we think of as a stable international system, not to mention a prosperous one, is because the United States has been willing to step up and to try to be the provider of a security commons, the provider of an economic commons—sometimes with not much benefit to ourselves. When I hear this, I think, “Do you really think the world is better with the United States stepping back?” Well, take a look out of your window at Vladimir Putin. Take a look out of your window at Hamas. Take a look out of your window at what Xi Jinping is doing in the South China Sea or in Taiwan. If you really want the United States to step back, that’s what you’re going to get.

Yes, America is not perfect. I come from segregated Birmingham, Alabama. I was a little girl at a time when you could not go to a movie theater or to a restaurant. Speaking of terrorism, I had a classmate killed in the 16th Street bombing of that church in Birmingham in September of 1963. I don’t look at the United States through rose-colored glasses, but I can tell you there is no country like it on the face of the earth with this kind of power and this kind of capability that has tried—sometimes a little bit clumsily, sometimes a little bit failingly—to provide for a more prosperous, more democratic, and safer world.

I believe that Americans carry simultaneously in their heads two very different thoughts. One is, “Haven’t we done enough? We defeated the Soviet Union. We unified Germany. We liberated Eastern Europe. We were able to defeat at least al-Qaeda. Haven’t we done enough? Can’t somebody else do it?” I understand that sense of exhaustion. On the other hand, other Americans carry in their heads, “I can’t watch Syrian babies choke on nerve gas. I can’t watch the massacre of the people in Sderot. I can’t watch as a large country decides to extinguish its smaller neighbor to rebuild an empire.” And then Americans say, “If not us, then who?” And under those circumstances, Americans can be led to take this burden, if you want to call it that, or this obligation, to be a part of a more stable world. I’m just looking for American leaders who are willing to say that.

BW: Israel has been in intense internal conflict over what some call necessary judicial reform and what others call a constitutional crisis. One could make the argument that this internal division was noticed by Hamas. What kind of lessons should Americans take from what we’re seeing right now in Israel about the kind of true danger that internal division can create? 

CR: There is no doubt that when the bad guys out there—the authoritarians, the troublemakers, the revisionist states—think that America is preoccupied or looking inward, that you start to get bad behavior. I would say, “Could we just get our act together now?” We need our American military leadership intact. I would say to those who seem to want to debate every small issue and not really pay attention to what’s going on out there in the world—this is going to require a unified effort. The one thing we had going for us for the entirety of the Cold War, and it’s why we ultimately won it, is that we knew what we were fighting for and we knew who we were, we knew that the Soviet Union’s victory would be a very bad outcome for our values and for our interests, and for the most part, in a bipartisan fashion, we hung together. We’re going to have to do that again. Not to mention the divisions within parties over these measures, because if we’re going to enter this very dangerous world in a way that we can begin to roll back some of the damage that has been done, we are going to have to look hard at our defense industry base. We’re going to have to look at the fact that for the second straight year in a row, our armed forces are missing their targets for recruitment. We have a lot of work to do. This is serious and we need to get serious about it. 

On American and Israeli solidarity:

BW: This week, you spoke at the vigil, and you said that this attack on Israel was also an attack on the United States of America. Explain why this is also an attack on our country and why it should matter to every single American, not just Jewish Americans? 

CR: It was an attack on a country with whom we have so many ties of kinship, of tradition, and of values. There are reasons that Americans died there. Israel is a part of us, and we are part of Israel. It was also an attack on decent values that, as America, we have defended and upheld, and that is that there should never be a terrorist attack on innocent people in which you do the most awful things that we haven’t really seen since the horrors of before World War II. It was an attack on America because it was an attack on an American friend and ally. It was an attack on America because it was an attack on Americans who happened to be there. It was an attack on America because it was an attack on who we are as a people, our values—not just our interests, but our values. It’s in that vein that I feel tremendous not just sympathy for the victims there, but also solidarity with them. I just want to say to every Israeli family, to the Israeli people, you’re in my prayers constantly. 

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