In a dramatic career turnaround, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice will be appointed Barack Obama‘s national security advisor Wednesday, just six months after withdrawing her name from consideration as secretary of state amid intense political pressure.
Rice’s promotion places her at the epicenter of foreign-policy decision making in a senior-level White House position that is arguably more influential than secretary of state, given its close proximity to the president. She replaces Tom Donilon, a cautious realist who has amassed immense influence over Obama’s foreign policy in his 2 1/2 years on the job.
The promotion highlights Obama’s willingness to stand by Rice despite intense Republican criticism of her role in disseminating information in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that ultimately proved misleading.
In his first press conference after winning re-election in November, Obama tore into Rice’s Republican critics. “If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” he said. “But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous.”
The sentiment followed a pledge by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and others to check the ambassador’s influence and ascendance. “I want to make sure that we don’t promote anybody that was an essential player in the Benghazi debacle,” Graham said.
A consummate Obama insider, Rice took a gamble in 2007 by supporting the president over then-frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. On the campaign trail, she led candidate Obama’s foreign-policy team and the two “emailed and spoke constantly,” according to James Traub, who profiled her in the pages of Foreign Policy last year.
But when it came time to name his first national security advisor, Obama turned instead to retired general James Jones, a political outsider who reportedly had difficulty connecting with the president’s inner circle. Jones was replaced by Donilon in October 2010.
As U.N. ambassador, Rice quickly made waves with her blunt talk and aggressive swagger. An Obama loyalist first and a liberal interventionist second, Rice swallowed her private desires for a quick U.S. intervention into Libya and followed White House orders to publicly press the brakes on the international march toward a no-fly zone throughout the second week of March 2011. She all the while made her preference toward intervention known inside the White House, and was eventually instrumental in pushing through a March 17 U.N. Security Council vote of 10-0 to take “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians. “The Libya resolution was a major achievement for Rice,” wrote Traub.
Her foreign-policy outlook is said to be shaped by the nightmare of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. At the time, she served as director for international organizations and peacekeeping at the National Security Council during Bill Clinton‘s first term.
According to the book A Problem from Hell, by Obama aide Samantha Power, Rice advised against calling the Rwandan bloodshed “genocide,” during interagency discussions in 1994. “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] elections?” Power quoted Rice as saying.
Rice has said she did not recall saying that but deemed the remark “inappropriate,” and is said to have ruminated for years over what the Clinton White House did wrong, and how another Rwanda could be prevented in the future, according to a New Republic profile of her by Julia Ioffe.
“What we did most wrong in the U.S. government was that we never even actively considered or debated whether we should do anything to stop the genocide,” Rice told Ioffe. “By anything, I mean anything involving intervention. Now, maybe the answer to that would’ve been, should’ve been no. But we never debated it, discussed it. It wasn’t on anybody’s mind, and it wasn’t editorialized about, and it wasn’t debated on the floor of Congress.”
If Rwanda chastened her outlook, it never diminished her self-confidence. At the United Nations, Rice’s tough demeanor is legendary.
Last February, when Russia and China blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government for attacking its own civilians, Rice exploded, saying the U.S. was “disgusted” by the double veto.
“The international community must protect the Syrian people from this abhorrent brutality,” she said. “But a couple members of this council remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant.”
The subsequent withdrawal of her name for secretary of state led Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin to jokingly request “double pay” if she remained at the U.N. “[She is] one tough individual,” he said.
She nodded to her combative reputation during an address at the U.N. Correspondent’s Association annual ball last year. “People have called me brusque, aggressive, abrasive,” she joked. “Of course, they don’t say that to my face, because they know I’d kick their butts.”
At the same event, she winked at reports pointing to her support of controversial Rwandan strongman President Paul Kagame, who is accused of stoking a vicious insurgency in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I’m amazed by some of the work you do — absolutely incredible,” she told reporters. “Some of you have been able to uncover things about me that I didn’t even know about myself. Seriously, even I didn’t know that I once lost a human-heart-eating contest to Idi Amin.”
According to Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, Rice’s ability to respond to criticisms with mirth is one of her strong suits.
“If anything, the way she handled the Benghazi situation — and then the withdrawal — only enhanced her relations here, because she did so with grace and good humor,” he told Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch in March.