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Has Susan Rice found her cojones moment?

Has Susan Rice found her cojones moment?

By Colum Lynch

Madeleine Albright, the former U.N. ambassador, was thrust into the top ranks of American diplomacy after a tart, off-color rebuke in 1996 of a Cuban MIG-29 pilot who shot down two unarmed planes manned by Cuban exiles while boasting "cojones!"

"Frankly, this is not cojones, this is cowardice," Albright told reporters at a U.N. press conference that provided a backdrop for what I like to call her "cojones moment," a pivot point that marked her break from the relative backwaters of U.N. diplomacy to the national political stage.

President Bill Clinton said it was "probably the most effective one liner in the whole administration’s foreign policy." And it helped accelerate Albright’s political ascent from an obscure university professor turned U.N. envoy to the country’s first female secretary of state.

Albright paved the way for Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, but is a future fourth making some rhetorical waves of her own?

On Monday, Susan Rice, speaking to hundreds of rabbis at a luncheon hosted by the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), returned to the related theme of Cuban unmentionables, recalling a 1961 speech by Adlai Stevenson defending the Kennedy administration’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and attacking Fidel Castro for his hostility towards the Catholic Church.

"I have already told you about Castro’s crimes against man. But now let me tell you about Castro’s crimes against God," Rice recalled Stevenson telling the U.N. General Assembly, while an Israeli diplomat and his Irish counterpart listened together attentively. "Castro has circumcised the freedoms of the Catholics of Cuba."

"At that," Rice said, "the Israeli diplomat looked over at his Irish friend and said, ‘I always knew that, somehow, we would be blamed for this.’"

It was a good joke, but there was something more behind it. The remarks were not only likely to strike a chord with a voting bloc, the anti-Castro Cuban Americans, who once exercised outside influence on American foreign policy on the island nation. More importantly, Rice demonstrated a shared understanding with America’s pro-Israel community, which often feels isolated at the United Nations.

In a sense, Rice’s speech had the feeling an election rally and an audition, an opportunity to demonstrate to Israel’s backers that the Obama administration — and she personally — share their emotional bond to the Jewish homeland.

Rice recalled her earliest memories of Israel as a 14 year-old tourist where she floated in the Dead Sea, and in a later visit with then Senator Barack Obama touched the "charred long remnants of the rockets that Hamas continues to fire at the brave unyielding citizens of Sderot." 

She detailed her pro-Israel bona fides, which includes her role in negotiating a sanctions resolution on Iran, excoriating Syria, and fighting off efforts to establish a U.N. inquiry into alleged Israeli excesses during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009. She recalled one of her favorite psalms, "Hinei ma’tov u’ma-nayim, shevet ach-im gam ya-chad" — or "how good it is and how pleasant when we sit together in brotherhood."

"Not a day goes by — not one — when my colleagues and I don’t work hard to defend Israel’s security and legitimacy at the United Nations," Rice assured. "Last October, when the Syrian regime’s ambassador, speaking in the Security Council, had the temerity — the chutzpah — to accuse the United States and Israel of being parties to genocide, I led our delegation in walking out."

The speech surely helped to solidify Rice’s standing among pro-Israel supporters. But did it constitute Rice’s cojones moment?

Perhaps not. The speech received little attention beyond publications that focus on Israel. And, of course, Obama still needs to get reelected to even give Rice a shot at the top diplomatic job.  If that happens, she’ll likely encounter tough competition from other foreign policy heavyweights, including Senator John Kerry, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

But her public scraps with her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, over Syria and Libya, have certainly raised her profile. In October, when Russia and China cast their first veto of a resolution condemning Syria’s conduct, citing concerns that it would be used as a pretext (as it had been in Libya) for military intervention, Rice fired back at Russia, a major arms supplier to Syria, saying the comparison with Libya was a "cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."

And when Russian and China followed up with a second Security Council veto last month, Rice came out firing. "The United States is disgusted," said Rice. "A couple of members of this council remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant."

The remarks were broadcast and re-tweeted around the globe, and caught the attention of an important constituency in Washington — political conservatives who have never formed part of her base.

Senator Chuck Grassley, (R-IA), praised her. "I app laude Amb Susan Rice strong statement abt Soviet Russia and Red China veto of Syria resoluition at UN," Grassley tweeted. (Misspellings are Grassley’s.)

So what does Rice have to say about her prospects for the top job at Foggy Bottom? "I love my job and I think the only person who can answer that question is President Obama. I will do what I am asked to do or what I’m not asked to do. So, we’ll see. But it has been an enormous privilege and a whole lot of fun to serve again and to serve at the United Nations, which is never dull and I feel very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch