Birmingham native and former Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice was on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College last Thursday to address an audience of BSC students and alumni (likely meaningless disclosure: the author of this post is a Birmingham-Southern alumnus). Rice delivered a 30-minute lecture in which she espoused the value of education, urged students to discover their passions and placed virtues like perseverance and optimism in the context of American and world history. She then spent another half-hour answering questions from BSC students on Iran, Iraq and foreign policy.
Rice, who also served as President George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser and worked for President George H. W. Bush as an expert on Soviet affairs, was the featured speaker at BSC’s annual Alex Stirling Lecture Series. Rice is currently a political science professor at Stanford University, where she has served on the faculty (when not working in the White House) for almost 20 years.
Lacking the space to cover all the topics Dr. Rice discussed, we’ll hit the high points.
ON IRAN & THE GREEN REVOLUTION: Iran was a hot topic in the question-and-answer session, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had announced early on Thursday that Iran intends to enrich uranium to 20 percent purity. Katie Glenn, a junior history major, mentioned Iran’s announcement and asked what advice Rice might have for the current administration in regards to Iran.
“The problem is that the process for enriching uranium is the same whether you are enriching to five percent or 97 percent,” Rice said. She explained that uranium enriched to five percent works as fuel for nuclear power, 20 percent uranium can used in the medical industry, and weapons-grade uranium needs to be at about 97 percent.
“So as Iran is enriching, they are practicing. When Ahmadinejad says, ‘We’re now at 20 percent,’ what he’s really saying to the world is ‘We’re getting better at this, and pretty soon we’ll be able to make anything that we want to make.’”
Rice said that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon. She suggested that the U.S. and other major players in the international financial system should apply sanctions and financial pressure on Iran’s economy, which she said is suffering from hyper-inflation, and work to restrict their access to spare parts needed for their oil and gas industry.
“Here is the rub: what happened in June in the streets of Tehran is a turning point,” Rice said, referencing the widespread protests in response to Ahmadinejad’s reelection. “I don’t know whether it’s going to be in one year, or five years, but the Iranian regime is done. That regime is through.”
“It has lost any legitimacy, it is a shell now. It’s just a military dictatorship; it’s a shell being held up by coercion.”
Rice then cited the December murder of the nephew of Iran’s opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi: “When you start to see the children of a revolution killed by the revolution, as happened when one of the great cleric’s nephews was murdered a few weeks ago, watch out. Things are starting to come apart.”
ON WMDs & THE CASE FOR WAR IN IRAQ: A question regarding suspicions that the Bush administration misrepresented pre-war intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prompted one of the more stirring moments of the evening.
“Nobody wants to go to war,” Rice said. “The idea that somehow the President of the United States sat around in the Oval Office thinking ‘Oh yeah, it would be really great if we could go to war,’ it just isn’t true.”
Rice said that every intelligence operation in the world thought Iraq had WMDs. “That turned out not to be right,” she admitted.
“I just want to be very clear: I am very regretful that the intelligence was not right,” Rice said. “I do not regret for a moment that we deposed Saddam Hussein.” That statement served as fitting end to her response to the Iraq question, as it triggered one of the evening’s several mid-speech applause breaks.
ON OBAMA’S FOREIGN POLICY: When asked by BSC student Alex Masterson to comment on the current administration’s handling of foreign policy, Rice indicated her respect for President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team, many of whom she’s worked with, but seemed reluctant to respond.
“I think about this like President Bush does,” Rice said. “I kind of owe them my silence and my loyalty because I know what it’s like to sit in those chairs and have people chirping at you from outside, because it’s always a lot easier out here than it is in there.
“I think that those of us outside owe a certain decorum to those on the inside,” she said.
ON EDUCATION & FINDING YOUR PASSION: During the scripted part of her speech, Rice put a heavy emphasis on education. She advised students to learn a foreign language, study abroad, participate in the Teach for America program and share their education with those less fortunate.
“You are here at Birmingham-Southern, a fine liberal arts institution, and you are so lucky,” Rice said. “Never take it for granted. Never assume that somehow you deserved it. There are a lot of people just as bright as you are, just as talented, who for reasons of circumstance didn’t get this chance. And so consider it a privilege and honor to be here.”
Rice, who did not discover her interest in the Soviet Union until college, urged students to discover a passion in college and follow it.
“I went home and told my parents,” Rice said, “and thank God they didn’t say ‘Honey, what’s a nice black girl talking about being a Soviet specialist?’”
“They said ‘Honey, go for it.’ And I did.”
ON OPTIMISM: Rice said that kind of optimism is a key to success. She mentioned the American Revolution, in which George Washington and a hastily organized army managed to beat the British, against all odds. She brought up the Soviet Union, which seemed capable of conquering the world in the middle of the 20th century but fell before the century was over.
“Remember, though, that things that one day seemed impossible seem inevitable in retrospect,” Rice said, wrapping up her speech. “And that, more than anything, will give you faith and confidence that no matter how hard your climb is you can make it through.”