5 highlights from Susan Rice’s diplomatic career

As John Hudson points out at The Cable, Susan Rice has pulled off a remarkable professional comeback. Just six months ago, the U.N. ambassador withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state amid intense opposition from congressional Republicans over misleading statements she made about the Benghazi attacks. Now she’s been tapped to succeed Tom ...

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

As John Hudson points out at The Cable, Susan Rice has pulled off a remarkable professional comeback. Just six months ago, the U.N. ambassador withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state amid intense opposition from congressional Republicans over misleading statements she made about the Benghazi attacks. Now she’s been tapped to succeed Tom Donilon as President Obama’s national security advisor.

Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised about Rice’s ability to bounce back from controversy. During her two decades inside the Beltway, Rice has been no stranger to incoming fire. Here are five moments from her career that will surely dominate water-cooler chatter in Washington this week.

The Benghazi Talking Points Debacle

On Sept. 16, 2012, Rice appeared on several Sunday talk shows to discuss the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. During her appearances, Rice, speaking from talking points prepared during a contentious interagency process, said that the attacks were a spontaneous response to an anti-Muslim video posted on the Internet. That assessment turned out to be incorrect, and congressional Republicans targeted Rice in their efforts to expose a White House cover-up. Here’s video from one of those appearances:

The Rwandan Genocide

When mass killings erupted in Rwanda in April 1994, Rice was serving on the National Security Council and was part of a coterie of U.S. officials who took little action to stop violence that would ultimately leave at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead.

Here’s how Samantha Power — a former journalist who worked as a human rights official in the Obama administration and who will be nominated to replace Rice at the U.N. — described Rice’s role during the genocide:

Even after the reality of genocide in Rwanda had become irrefutable, when bodies were shown choking the Kagera River on the nightly news, the brute fact of the slaughter failed to influence U.S. policy except in a negative way. American officials, for a variety of reasons, shunned the use of what became known as "the g-word." They felt that using it would have obliged the United States to act, under the terms of the 1948 Genocide Convention. They also believed, understandably, that it would harm U.S. credibility to name the crime and then do nothing to stop it. A discussion paper on Rwanda, prepared by an official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and dated May 1, testifies to the nature of official thinking. Regarding issues that might be brought up at the next interagency working group, it stated,

1. Genocide Investigation: Language that calls for an international investigation of human rights abuses and possible violations of the genocide convention. Be Careful. Legal at State was worried about this yesterday-Genocide finding could commit [the U.S. government] to actually "do something." [Emphasis added.]

At an interagency teleconference in late April, Susan Rice, a rising star on the NSC who worked under Richard Clarke, stunned a few of the officials present when she asked, "If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?" Lieutenant Colonel Tony Marley remembers the incredulity of his colleagues at the State Department. "We could believe that people would wonder that," he says, "but not that they would actually voice it." Rice does not recall the incident but concedes, "If I said it, it was completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant."

Rice has faced criticism for turning a blind eye to the massacres in Rwanda, but her experience appears to have also had a profound impact on her understanding of the world. Here’s Power again:

Susan Rice, Clarke’s co-worker on peacekeeping at the NSC, also feels that she has a debt to repay. "There was such a huge disconnect between the logic of each of the decisions we took along the way during the genocide and the moral consequences of the decisions taken collectively," Rice says. "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." Rice was subsequently appointed NSC Africa director and, later, assistant secretary of state for African affairs; she visited Rwanda several times and helped to launch a small program geared to train selected African armies so that they might be available to respond to the continent’s next genocide. The American appetite for troop deployments in Africa had not improved.

More recently, Rice has disputed the notion that she is eternally seeking to atone for events in Rwanda. "To suggest that I’m repenting for [Rwanda] or that I’m haunted by that or that I don’t sleep because of that or that every policy I’ve ever implemented subsequently is driven by that is garbage," she told the New Republic in 2012.

But even if she has managed to move on from the tragedy, it is clear that Rwanda made her more willing to consider the use of American power for humanitarian ends — a perspective that surfaced during the debate over whether the United States should intervene in Libya in 2011. Some of Rice’s most instructive comments on the issue came during an emotional speech she delivered on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the genocide. Judge for yourself whether she is still affected by what happened during those brutal months in 1994:

U.S. Intervention in Libya

During the Obama administration’s internal debate over whether the United States should intervene in Libya on behalf of rebel forces, Rice emerged as a forceful advocate for intervention — and a critical player in lining up international support for the operation.

In a show of diplomatic jujitsu, she frustrated her allies at the United Nations by repeatedly putting a brake on efforts to draft a forceful Security Council resolution authorizing intervention. Little did they know that behind the scenes she had secretly
drafted a resolution authorizing airstrikes — despite the fact that she hadn’t yet won White House support for the policy. When Obama finally came around to authorizing the use of military force, Rice rammed her resolution through the Security Council. In an institution not known for its ability to take swift action, Rice greased the wheels expertly and secured international backing for humanitarian intervention — no small feat.

Resolution 1929

During the first six months of 2010, Rice carried out an intensive lobbying effort to build a coalition at the Security Council that would pass additional sanctions against Iran for its unwillingness to abandon its nuclear program. As James Traub wrote in his profile of Rice for Foreign Policy:

Rice’s aides say that she got down in the weeds of the resolution, battering her fellow diplomats with details of how Iran used foreign banks to obscure nuclear-related transactions. She was prepared to conduct her own foreign policy when necessary. When a fellow diplomat challenged her on a red-line issue, saying that Jones, the national security advisor, had laid out the administration’s policy differently, Rice retorted, "I outrank General Jones."

Rice got results. Resolution 1929 imposed sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, prohibited the sale of some heavy weapons to Iran, and called for the inspection of ships and airplanes suspected of carrying contraband cargo to or from Iran. It was a victory that won her plaudits within the White House.

Protecting Kagame?

Rwanda is the issue that won’t go away for Rice. In late 2012, with an alleged Rwandan-backed insurgency wreaking havoc in eastern Congo, France’s U.N. ambassador, Gérard Araud, urged Rice to exercise her influence with Rwandan President Paul Kagame — an old friend of hers and a staunch U.S. ally — to get the rebel forces, known as the M23, to back down. "Gerard, it’s eastern Congo. If it were not the M23 killing people it would be some other armed groups," she reportedly responded. U.S. officials say that they have privately urged Kagame to end his support of the M23 movement, which seized Goma, the regional capital, a few a weeks after the conversation between Rice and Araud.

The United States has continued to protect the Rwandan government at the United Nations. Following the rebel assault on Goma, the Security Council passed a resolution condemning the group’s actions. But at the urging of the United States, mention of Rwanda was dropped from the resolution.

 Twitter: @EliasGroll