When one door closes another one opens. Susan Rice can certainly vouch for that pithy piece of advice. Early last fall the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations looked to be a shoe-in to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Then came Benghazi. By December it was clear that Senate Republicans would block her nomination. So in keeping with Washington tradition, she withdrew her name from consideration. But today a door opened. President Obama named Rice to succeed Tom Donilon as national security adviser—a position that is potentially more influential than secretary of state even if it is less prestigious. Rice takes up her new post in early July. Many of her critics are panning Obama’s decision to move her from Turtle Bay to the White House, but there is not much they can do about it. While presidents need Senate consent to appoint cabinet secretaries, they can appoint anyone they wish to staff jobs.
Name: Susan Elizabeth Rice
Date of Birth: November 17, 1964
Place of Birth: Washington, DC
Political Party: Democratic Party
Marital Status: Married to Ian Cameron
Children: Two children, daughter Maris and son Jake.
Alma Mater: Stanford University (Rice was named a Rhodes Scholar and subsequently earned her doctorate in international relations from Oxford University)
Political Offices Held: U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations (2009-2013), U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1997-2001), Special Assistant to President Clinton and Senior Director for African Affairs at National Security Council (1995-1997), Director for International Organizations and Peacekeeping on the National Security Council (1993-1995)
What Supporters Say:
When you work directly for the president of the United States, his opinion of your abilities trumps all else. And President Obama is a big fan of Susan Rice. Here is what he said about her at today’s announcement ceremony:
Susan was a trusted adviser during my first campaign for president. She helped to build my foreign policy team and lead our diplomacy at the United Nations in my first term. I am absolutely thrilled that she will be back at my side leading my national security team in my second term.
With her background as a scholar, Susan understands that there is no substitute for American leadership. She is at once compassionate and pragmatic. I think that everyone understands that Susan is a fierce champion for justice and human dignity, but she is also mindful that we have to exercise our power wisely and deliberately…
Susan is the consummate public servant—a patriot who puts her country first. She is fearless. She is tough. She has a great tennis game and a pretty good basketball game.
Vice President Joe Biden shares Obama’s assessment. He said last month that Rice has “the absolute, total, complete confidence of the president.”
Rice has experience at both the National Security Council and the State Department, which will serve her well in her new role. Michael Doyle, a former assistant secretary general of the United Nations, told the Washington Post that Rice has:
deep experience operating in the Washington bureaucracy — and know[s] what’s possible, what’s not, what lever can be moved and which one can’t.
Rice’s name became a trending topic on Twitter after her appointment. David Axelrod tweeted:
@AmbassadorRice and Samantha Power are great choices for Nat Sec & UN posts. Both strong, brilliant & dynamic, with passion for service.
Senator Harry Reid added:
In Susan Rice and Samantha Power, President Obama has selected two outstanding individuals to maintain a strong national security team.
Rice signed up with Obama’s presidential campaign when it was first launched in 2007. Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told the New York Times in December:
Throughout the campaign, Susan was making an argument about challenging conventions, whether it was about Iraq or diplomacy with Iran…Susan has the expertise that comes from being within the foreign policy establishment, but she had the willingness to challenge it. And for the president, that was a pretty attractive quality.
Obama administration officials aren’t the only ones who think highly of Rice. Former secretary of state Madeline Albright said of her:
She is incredibly bright, but lots of people in Washington are bright…What separates people out here is that some are loyal.
President Obama is big on loyalty.
What Critics Say
Susan Rice has plenty of critics in Washington. A lot of that criticism stems from what she said on the five major Sunday morning talk shows about the Benghazi attacks on September 11, 2012. Whereas Rice’s supporters see a government official speaking on the basis of misguided talking points and confusing intelligence, Rice’s critics see a premeditated effort to mislead the public and protect the president in the midst of a heated presidential campaign.
One of Rice’s chief critics is Senator John McCain (R-AZ). He said flatly that she was “not qualified” to be secretary of state:
Anyone who goes on national television and in defiance of the facts, five days later — We’re all responsible for what we say and what we do. I’m responsible to my voters. She’s responsible to the Senate of the United States. We have our responsibility for advice and consent.
Plenty of other congressional Republicans feel the same way. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) said on Fox News today:
How are they going to have the authority for people to believe what they’re saying, when he’s promoting someone who directly and deliberately misled the public over Benghazi?
Some of Rice’s critics blast her record at the UN. Richard Grenell wrote for Fox News:
Rice’s diplomatic failures and silence in the face of outrageous UN antics have given the United States pathetic representation among the 193 members of the world body…. the Rice record at the UN speaks for itself. Anyone looking objectively at what she has or hasn’t accomplished during her tenure will deduce she has failed to convince UN members to support US priority issues.
Critics have already taken to Twitter to protest Rice’s appointment. Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) tweeted:
Judgement is key to national security matters. That alone should disqualify Susan Rice from her appointment. #benghazi #BadChoice.
Herman Cain tweeted:
Susan Rice survives getting pinched, keeps her mouth shut and gets promoted. Just like in Goodfellas! bit.ly/11ZRnsv
But Rice may have a chance to cooperate with some of her critics. Senator McCain tweeted:
Obviously I disagree w/ POTUS appointment of Susan Rice as Nat’l Security Adviser, but I’ll make every effort to work w/ her on imp’t issues.
Stories You’ll Hear More About:
Rice is the first national security adviser to have been a Rhodes Scholar. She is also the first national security adviser to have previously been a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Studies Program. (No, you probably won’t hear more about this unless you work at Brookings. I am noting it here so that I can provide the obligatory full disclosure: Susan and I were colleagues at Brookings. I also worked with her on the Clinton National Security staff.)
Rice is the second person (and woman) named “Rice” to be national security adviser. Condoleezza Rice was the first in 2001. The two women are not related.
Rice joined the staff of the National Security Council when Bill Clinton took office in 1993. She worked first as director for international organizations and peacekeeping under Senior Director Richard A. Clarke and then as senior director for African Affairs. During Clinton’s second term, Rice was assistant secretary of state for African Affairs.
Rice’s one great regret from her first stint in government is that the Clinton administration did not do more to stop the Rwanda genocide. She later told Samantha Power when the latter was writing the award-winning book, A Problem from Hell (and whom President Obama has nominated to succeed Rice as ambassador to the UN):
I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.
Inaction may not have been Rice’s only mistake on Rwanda. Rice reportedly said at a meeting as the Clinton administration struggled over what to do about Rwanda:
If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?
Other participants at the meeting report being stunned that Rice openly speculated about the domestic political impact of a foreign policy decision. Rice says she does not recall asking that question, but says “If I said it, it was completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant.”
Although Rice worked for Bill Clinton, she chose not to join Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2007. She instead signed on to the long shot candidacy of Barack Obama. The Guardian writes:
That move was seen by some on the Clinton side as a kind of betrayal, and though relations between the two women have been professional and successful since Obama’s victory, few see their relationship as overly warm. Indeed, were Clinton’s oft-touted run for the White House in 2016 to emerge as a victorious reality, few would predict a guaranteed slot for Rice in such a future administration.
Rice has a reputation for being tough and direct rather than diplomatic and indirect. The New Republic wrote in December:
Rice’s get-it-done approach can sometimes resemble yukking it up with the guys in the locker room. “She doesn’t like diplomatic niceties, which is a nice way to put it,” says one human rights activist at the United Nations.
During her years at the United Nations, she acquired a reputation as a tough, often uncompromising diplomat who has no qualms about cursing behind closed doors.
Rice told the Daily Beast:
I am a direct person… With me, what you see is what you get. I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not going to scam you, if I say we’ll do something, we’ll do it.
In a profile of Rice in Foreign Policy last September, James Traub wrote:
In the Obama administration, foreign policy is made by the White House and carried out by the State Department, and Rice has hitched herself almost wholly to the former.
That would strike most people as an imminently sensible thing to do.
Rice has tweeted 2,339 times under the handle @AmbassadorRice. Nicholas Kristof raised a question that her 292,000 followers will be asking:
@AmbassadorRice @USUN We do hope you’ll continue to tweet from the White House!
Rice’s followers will have to wait to see if being national security adviser leaves any time for tweeting, and if it does, whether Rice will adopt a new Twitter handle.
Rice’s move to the White House and Power’s move to the UN will have pundits debating what the shake up in Obama’s national security team means for American foreign policy. The Washington Post has summarized the issue nicely:
President Obama’s shuffle of his national security team Wednesday ushers out a consummate, cautious Washington insider and elevates two long-time proponents of a larger American role in preventing humanitarian crises and protecting human rights around the world. The ideological shift signaled in the personnel choices highlights the central dilemma for Obama as he seeks to make a mark on the world at a time of austerity—and war weariness—at home. How ambitious Obama intends to be abroad at a time of stiff challenges on the domestic front has remained an open question months into his second term.
Put your money on continuity rather than change, with Rice (and Power) vigorously defending Obama’s choices rather than remaking them.
Foreign Policy Views (In Her Own Words):
Rice’s regrets about not pushing for more forceful action in Rwanda likely shaped how she viewed Libya in 2011. She and Samantha Power, who was then senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights on the staff of the National Security Council, both pushed for U.S. intervention and their position eventually carried the day. Rice carried out with relish her task to convince the UN Security Council to authorize the use of military force against Qaddafi. She recalls:
I made something of a dramatic presentation
saying to the UN Security Council that they were dealing with:
as imminent and urgent a situation as this council has ever faced… I don’t want to hear six months from now that we did a bait-and-switch on you people… It’s airstrikes; it’s aggressive use of air power.
The Security Council passed the resolution the next day.
The Rwandan and Libyan episodes have pundits speculating about whether she will push for U.S. military intervention, either directly or through proxies. All the signs coming from the White House so far point to President Obama’s strong preference to stay on the sidelines in Syria. This time last year, Rice made clear that she too is reluctant to act, at least when it comes to putting U.S. combat boots on the ground:
The consideration of putting U.S. or other foreign troops on the ground is premature, to say the least…There are real challenges with a humanitarian corridor, not least of which is that it entails having troops on the ground.
Rice did, however, indicate that she hopes to find a solution:
Nobody is saying, ‘To hell with the people of Syria.”
Nothing Rice has said publicly suggests how she proposes to thread the needle between doing too much and too little.
Rice favors doing more to address climate change. She sees it as a real threat to international security. She told the Security Council in 2011:
Climate change has very real implications for peace and security. They are as powerful as they are complex, and many of them are already upon us. In many regions, climate change is already reducing the availability of food and water, threatening biodiversity, and disrupting sea levels and weather patterns. As more powerful and frequent storms and floods lash coastlines and uproot populations, climatic changes can put even more pressure on scarce resources and expose vulnerable communities to greater instability.
In the absence of congressional willingness to do something about climate change, Rice will not have much running room on the subject.
Rice does not have deep experience in Asia broadly or China specifically, though her four years in Turtle Bay have given her a lot of experience dealing with Chinese diplomats. Foreign ministry types throughout Asia will no doubt will be burning the midnight oil for the next several weeks churning out memos for their bosses explaining what Rice’s time as national security adviser means for them.