Turtle Bay

So, where the heck was Susan Rice?

As the Obama administration faced one of its most serious U.N. crises to date — a Turkish effort to secure U.N. condemnation of Israel following a bloody raid on an aid flotilla — one key figure was conspicuously absent from the drama. Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, stayed back in ...

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.

As the Obama administration faced one of its most serious U.N. crises to date -- a Turkish effort to secure U.N. condemnation of Israel following a bloody raid on an aid flotilla -- one key figure was conspicuously absent from the drama.

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, stayed back in Washington to advise President Obama, leaving it to her deputy, Alejandro "Alex" Wolff, to negotiate directly with the Turks at the U.N. Security Council. She has still not made a public statement on the crisis.

The American diplomatic effort shielded Israel from direct condemnation and successfully blocked, at least for now, a Turkish request for a Security Council-backed  inquiry. But it has been hard to see the hand of the U.S. representative, who remained largely invisible to the public, in the final outcome.

As the Obama administration faced one of its most serious U.N. crises to date — a Turkish effort to secure U.N. condemnation of Israel following a bloody raid on an aid flotilla — one key figure was conspicuously absent from the drama.

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, stayed back in Washington to advise President Obama, leaving it to her deputy, Alejandro "Alex" Wolff, to negotiate directly with the Turks at the U.N. Security Council. She has still not made a public statement on the crisis.

The American diplomatic effort shielded Israel from direct condemnation and successfully blocked, at least for now, a Turkish request for a Security Council-backed  inquiry. But it has been hard to see the hand of the U.S. representative, who remained largely invisible to the public, in the final outcome.

In her first interview on her role in the talks, Rice told Turtle Bay that she made a decision to manage the U.N. negotiations from Washington, so as not to lose more than an hour of travel time to New York.

"I had to make a judgment as to whether I dashed here [New York] and blew off transit time to be seen to be here," she said. "There was a downside to me being out of pocket and not leading the response." She said she anticipated being questioned, and possibly criticized, about her absence, but countered: "I’d rather have it done right and well, rather than simply have my face on it."

Rice said she had no qualms about delegating negotiations with Turkey to her deputy, saying he has extensive experience dealing with crises in the region, and leaving it to him to deliver the U.S. statement. "It was a no-brainer. Alex is hugely talented," she said. "I have utter confidence in him. There was no downside to having him do the negotiation."

Rice’s discreet role in the negotiations reflects a low-visibility diplomatic style that has marked her tenure as U.N. ambassador. She is careful never to upstage her bosses, Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton and President Barack Obama, asking them to take her seat on the Security Council to vote on key resolutions. At the White House’s request, she traveled to Washington last year, reluctantly, to brief the White House press corps on the adoption of a sanctions resolution on North Korea, leaving it to her subordinate to cast perhaps the most important vote of her tenure in the council chamber.

In contrast to her Republican predecessors, including Zalmay Khalilzad and John Bolton, Rice holds cabinet rank, making her a principal in the Obama administration’s national-security team. She maintains a staff and a home in Washington, where her husband and children live, and spends one to two work days in D.C. each week. That has often placed her in Washington as international crises spill onto the U.N.’s doorstep.

Rice’s conservative detractors’ have criticized her absence from U.N. headquarters during critical negotiations, including the fallout from the devastating January earthquake in Haiti, which she also managed from Washington.

But even an admirer like Jeffrey Laurenti, a veteran U.N. analyst as the Century Foundation, says that Rice has been "more detached from the U.N. political scene" than her predecessors, leaving it to second- and third-ranking officials to handle many critical crises in New York. But he added that "the United States and President Obama were not ill-served by Wolff’s" management of the recent negotiations with Turkey on the Israeli commando raid.

Rice prefers staged, controlled press events, often organized well after negotiations have concluded. Rice and her staff rarely pull back the curtain for U.N. reporters to reveal the human drama unfolding in closed-door negotiations with diplomats from China, Russia, and other key powers.

The approach has perhaps cost her some of the public visibility of her more outspoken predecessors, including Bolton or President Bill Clinton’s envoys, Madeleine K. Albright and Richard C. Holbrooke. "She seems to have consciously adopted a low-press visibility strategy of not courting attention," said Laurenti. "So, it’s hard to know what levers she is pulling in the White House."

But her public restraint has endeared her to the White House, which values her as a loyal team player. "You can be a work horse or a show horse," Denis McDonough, the U.S. National Security Council chief of staff told Turtle Bay. "She personifies the work-horse style. She’s not out there trying to get the limelight; she’s pushing towards results."

Rice, McDonough and other U.S. officials described Rice’s intensive, continuous 19-hour crisis response — beginning with a 7:00 wake up call and ending an hour after she chaired a 12:55 a.m. national security conference call. Rice spent the day coordinating the U.S. response to the commando raid in a blizzard of interagency meetings, and spoke frequently with President Obama, Secretary Clinton, National Security Advisor James Jones, and Ambassador Wolff.  Rice also spoke with the U.S. ambassadors to Israel and Turkey, reached out to congressional leaders, and briefed outside groups, including the the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying group, on the U.S. approach.

"I’m not trying to be invisible," she added. "I’m not shy. But the most important thing to me is not self promotion but getting things done."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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