Susan Rice Finally Has Her Perfect Job: Head-Knocker in Chief

Obama's new national security advisor has sharp elbows, a tart tongue, and a taste for the shadows.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

At her farewell reception at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in June, Susan Rice, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was feted by her colleagues in a colorful send-off that I cannot describe here because the off-the-record terms of my invitation don’t allow it. Nor, I have been advised, can I publish a group photograph of Rice with several members of the U.N. press corps, even though the same photo is posted on Rice’s public Facebook page.

After a rough-and-tumble year that saw Rice forced to withdraw from contention for the secretary-of-state job after her flawed account of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Rice and her handlers are leaving little to chance. They have enforced ever stricter controls on how she is to be viewed in her new role as President Barack Obama’s national security advisor. It has resulted in fewer unscripted encounters and more lawyerly negotiations over the terms of interviews. Even a question about Rice’s plans for staying in touch with her nearly 300,000 Twitter followers is handled off the record.

The heightened sensitivity may reflect the battle scars of having gone through one of the most brutal Beltway takedowns in memory. But it also marks the natural transition from the freewheeling diplomatic corridors of Turtle Bay, where the U.S. ambassador is expected to maintain a public profile, to the more insular White House, where discretion is prized and where Rice’s main challenges will be shaping the president’s policies and refereeing disputes among members of the powerful national security team. The White House job, said Peter Yeo, the executive director of the Better World Campaign, requires "knocking heads together behind the scenes. By definition, when you knock heads together that activity is much more likely to happen behind closed doors."

After four and a half years of playing the diplomat, Rice finally has a job that fits her sharp-elbowed personality. She’ll no longer need to pay so much attention to the public niceties of diplomatic life. She won’t have to worry as much about awkward leaks from loose-lipped foreign colleagues. And she’ll have greater freedom to unlock her inner bulldozer as the president’s head-knocker in chief.

During her stint at the United Nations, Rice earned a reputation as a whip-smart, energetic, abrasive, charming, funny, combative, and frequently undiplomatic force. Her profane denunciations are so much a part of her public identity that she frequently jokes about them at public events. In December 2010, her staff produced a video skit in which she blurts out the f-word four times — the sound is bleeped — as she seeks to rally the U.N. Security Council in a mock campaign to eliminate bedbugs on the U.N. premises. One Security Council ambassador once quipped: "Her favorite word is bullshit."

One of her least favorite words is leak. Rice has bridled at the frequent leaking of confidential deliberations in the United Nations. One of her first acts as U.S. ambassador was to join forces with Russia and China to bar note-takers from the office of the U.N. secretary-general’s spokesman from sitting in on closed-door Security Council consultations. This year, Rice’s office issued official complaints to the U.N. secretariat and the French government over suspected leaks to the press.

Rice is, in the words of one of her Security Council colleagues, "a control freak" who values discretion and loyalty among her colleagues and who likes to stage-manage the finest details of her personal and diplomatic life.

In the thick of Obama’s re-election campaign, when rumors swirled over her prospects for the top job at Foggy Bottom, a U.N. colleague told her she would make a better fit at the White House. "I told her, ‘Everybody says you’re going to be secretary of state, but I think you’re more suitable for the national security advisor’s job,’" said the diplomat, who asked not to be named. "So she turned around and said, ‘Why do you think that?’ And I said, ‘Because of your propensity to bite off other people’s noses.’ It was said with affection, and she took it that way." 

That work begins Monday, July 1, when Rice will be thrust into the maelstrom that is U.S. foreign policy. Administration sources say she’ll enter the White House with few, if any, of her aides from her U.N. tenure. She will have to manage with the existing National Security Staff as she grapples with the great-power cybersnooping squabble between China and the United States; coordinates the American quest to capture former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, who is holed up at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport; helps figure out the U.S. response to the fresh unrest in Egypt; and, of course, tries to make sense of American policy toward Syria, where the United States is gearing up to arm Syrian rebels seeking the military overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad. And that’s before you get to the military drawdown in Afghanistan, calibrating U.S. policy in Iran in reaction to its recent presidential election, and the Middle East peace process.

In a final media encounter, Rice recalled her time at the United Nations as "the best job I have ever had" and detailed U.N. accomplishments under her watch: reinforced sanctions on Iran and North Korea, U.N.-backed efforts to confront Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government, a Turtle Bay-led campaign to take down Ivory Coast’s former leader, Laurent Gbagbo, after he refused to accept an electoral defeat. "I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished together here. I’m also excited about the work that lies ahead, which will require even stronger international partnership," she said.

But Rice also voiced deep frustration about the failure of the international community to help end the conflict in Darfur and to convince the Sudanese government to provide humanitarian relief to hundreds of thousands of needy people in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. And she expressed disgust over the U.N. Security Council’s failure to come together to halt a bloody civil war that has killed more than 90,000 people in Syria. "The council’s inaction on Syria is a moral and strategic disgrace that history will judge harshly." It is, Rice, noted, "a stain on this body and something that I will forever regret."

It was also a failure that Rice would claim no part in, saying, "I don’t believe that outcome is a product of the action of the United States or its closest partners."

"This is not part of my legacy or the U.S. legacy," she added. But blasting China’s and Russia’s U.N. delegations just as she left Turtle Bay? That was vintage Susan Rice.

In many ways, Rice’s transition will mark a move away from the spotlight. In a White House known for disciplined messaging, there will likely be fewer leaks of the off-color declarations that have made Rice so interesting to cover. The closed-door confrontations with colleagues — such as her verbal spats with her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin; French Ambassador Gérard Araud, and China’s envoy, Li Baodong — will probably go unrecorded.

But her image will be managed much more carefully. A recent official White House photograph summed up the image that will likely define her role in American politics over the next three and a half years: It’s a shot of Rice, dressed in a black pantsuit, attending a White House meeting with the president in the Oval Office, clutching a stack of folders and briefing notes, preparing perhaps for a long night of homework.

Rice will by no means disappear from public view. In contrast to her predecessor, Tom Donilon, she is expected to be more visible. She will keep her Twitter feed, allowing her to continue to communicate directly with her nearly 300,000 followers. She will likely share the job with her national security colleagues of unveiling major foreign-policy initiatives. (Whether she’ll follow Donilon’s model of being an honest broker of national security views — or be more of an advocate herself — remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: her long-standing relationship with Obama isn’t about to fade away.)

Last week, Rice had already pivoted to the national stage, defending the president’s legacy amid the revelations of the NSA’s massive digital spying program. Speaking as European fury over the surveillance was spilling over into the public, Rice said that any suggestions that the disclosure had weakened U.S. foreign policy were "bunk."

Her final days at the United Nations were supposed to be carefully orchestrated, but the NSA exchange was one of several ways in which the effort to stage-manage Rice’s exit didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned. At her off-the-record farewell reception, New York Times reporter Neil MacFarquhar fired off a few unauthorized tweets that offered some candid insights into her final days at Turtle Bay, including an account of the Russian ambassador’s private roasting of his former sparring partner. Churkin observed that Rice’s privileged education, which included stints at Stanford and Oxford universities, taught her little about "classical diplomacy."

"Susan Rice is not one of those pinstriped diplomats," he added. "For one thing, her vocabulary is much richer."

The remarks, which were offered tongue-in-cheek, reflected the fact that despite their sharp differences, Rice and Churkin genuinely seem to like one another. In a final bit of ribbing, according to one Security Council diplomat who was in the room, Churkin also introduced a draft Security Council statement reflecting on Rice’s stormy tenure.

"The Security Council expresses its relief at the departure of Susan Rice, and sends its condolences to another security council she would soon be gracing with her presence."

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