Election 2020

The Risks of Susan Rice

If Biden picks Obama’s national security advisor as his running mate, Benghazi would hardly be her biggest vulnerability.

Susan Rice speaks at the 10th Anniversary Women in the World Summit at the Lincoln Center in New York City on April 11, 2019.
Susan Rice speaks at the 10th Anniversary Women in the World Summit at the Lincoln Center in New York City on April 11, 2019. Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Susan Rice, former national security advisor under President Barack Obama, is back in the news as a leading prospect to be named Joe Biden’s running mate against Donald Trump in November, following the presumptive Democratic nominee’s announcement that he will choose a woman, perhaps as early as this weekend. 

Rice, 55, possesses enormous advantages: A former U.N. ambassador as well as senior advisor to Obama, the Stanford University-educated former Rhodes scholar is by all accounts brilliant and deeply experienced in foreign policy to a degree few other candidates for the job are. And at a moment when the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for social justice have gripped the nation in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in May, Rice may rank high on Biden’s list of possibilities because she is one of the most accomplished and prominent African Americans in the Democratic Party.  Rice also has had a long and close relationship with Biden, who values loyalty. This stands in stark contrast to California Sen. Kamala Harris, another leading candidate, who fiercely attacked the former vice president during the Democratic primaries on the issue of racial segregation; on Tuesday Biden was photographed holding a handwritten series of talking points about Harris that began with: “Do not hold grudges.”

But Rice also brings a lot of potential baggage, from her role in the 2012 Benghazi tragedy to a personality described by many as abrasive, a lack of political experience, and a shaky track record while helming the National Security Council (NSC).

Republicans are already threatening to revisit the ghosts of Benghazi, the Libyan city where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed on Sept. 11, 2012, leading to one of Rice’s worst moments in public life and years of Republican attacks. But Rice’s performance in public office has occasionally raised other issues about her suitability to be vice president that have nothing to do with Benghazi. During her time as both U.N. ambassador and national security advisor, her judgment, political experience, and temperament were sometimes called into question—even by some within her own party.

Rice easily beats the Benghazi rap, though the tragic deaths brought her to national attention in the worst possible way and at a critical point in her career. Obama, to whom Rice had been a close advisor since his earliest days as a presidential candidate, had wanted her to be his second-term secretary of state, succeeding Hillary Clinton. But that all ended when, in the days immediately after the Benghazi attacks, Rice gave interviews on the Sunday talk shows. Speaking from “talking points” supplied by the U.S. intelligence community, she suggested that Stevens’s death resulted from “spontaneous” protests against an internet video, not an organized Islamist attack. Right-wing conspiracists pounced, saying Rice and the administration were covering up policy failures to protect Obama and Clinton—whom Rice was sent out to take the heat for.

The allegations of a cover-up were mostly nonsense. It was later determined that, despite the revelation of a controversial White House memo that sought to shape the official administration line that the Americans’ deaths weren’t due to a “broader failure of policy,” Rice was basically doing her best to express the genuinely confused intelligence assessment at the time. Republicans ultimately turned up so little evidence on Benghazi to use as ammunition against Clinton—their real target all along—that they dropped the issue in 2016, focusing instead on her private email servers. Meanwhile, in 2013 the much-maligned Rice was named Obama’s national security advisor, rather than getting the top cabinet post, which went to John Kerry. In her 2019 memoir, Tough Love, Rice wrote that the controversy caused enormous pain for her and her family, including her young daughter, who experienced hallucinations. Rice was still traumatized by it years later. “Why me?” she wrote. “Why was I the one the GOP went after when I was a comparatively bit player in the actual Benghazi drama?”

She had a point. But the other knocks against Rice’s suitability might be harder to shake off. As Obama’s closest foreign-policy aide, she was sometimes accused of running an insular NSC that didn’t consult well with the administration’s own cabinet secretaries and agencies, especially then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

“There is a sense that the NSC is run a little like beehive ball soccer, where everyone storms to wherever the ball is moving around the field,” one former senior administration official told me at the time. “They are managing by crisis rather than strategy. … It’s Syria one day, Iraq the next, North Korea the next, and so on. The NSC is finding multitasking very hard these days.”  Other critics say the outspoken Rice was not always popular with colleagues and subordinates. Nor did she handle disagreement well, according to one longtime foreign-policy expert who worked for Democratic administrations and dealt with Rice personally. She also encountered difficulties in her dealings with Capitol Hill that could raise questions about how well Rice would handle a tough national campaign against a media master like Trump.

Some senior officials reject this criticism as unfair, saying the NSC in those years was beset with an extraordinary barrage of crises. “I’ve worked with Susan for 32 years,” former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said in an interview. “We’ve had policy disputes over the years, but she’s a very decent person. She is one of the smartest foreign-policy professionals I’ve known. She’s tough-minded but fair, has a deep sense of principles which serve as a lodestar in guiding her in handling complex problems, has a great sense of humor, and is a thoughtful person and good and trustworthy friend in a professional world where that is not always the norm.”

After Benghazi, Rice sought to preserve her candidacy for secretary of state with a series of unpersuasive meetings on Capitol Hill in which she failed to sway even moderate Republicans such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine (whom she later considered running against—Rice’s family has deep ties to the state). Rice also has never run for public office—an extreme rarity for someone bidding to be vice president; the last major-party candidate to do so was Sargent Shriver, who lost in a landslide alongside George McGovern in 1972 to Richard Nixon. Already the Trump camp is planning to attack Rice over an email she sent on the day of his inauguration raising questions about discussions her incoming successor, Michael Flynn, had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and the role she might have played in prompting the FBI’s Russia investigation.

“She’s not a glad-hander, that is true,” said a former senior Obama administration official who worked closely with Rice. “She’s very straightforward. She’s not gonna just make nice for the sake of making nice. She’s honest with people where there are differences, but that’s what makes her effective too. People know where she stands. Rather than sweet talk and paper things over, she engages.” 

A spokesperson for the Biden campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some of Rice’s defenders say criticism of her no-nonsense manner smacks of sexism. Indeed, in her book, Rice writes about the challenges of pushing her way upward in what remains largely a man’s world of high-level policymaking: “The combination—being a confident black woman who is not seeking permission or affirmation from others—I now suspect accounts for why I inadvertently intimidate some people, especially certain men, and perhaps also why I have long inspired motivated detractors who simply can’t deal with me.”

But many critics, including even at one point her former Obama administration colleague Samantha Power—who succeeded Rice as U.N. ambassador—have also questioned her judgment and performance in critical policy areas, especially in Africa. This goes back to the very beginning of Rice’s career in government, when, during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Rice was the NSC director for international organizations and peacekeeping under National Security Advisor Anthony Lake in the Bill Clinton administration. Both Lake and Rice later expressed regret about failing to advocate U.S. intervention, and Clinton himself called it one of the biggest mistakes of his presidency. 

“Everyone who lived through that feels profoundly remorseful and bothered by it,” Rice told me in an interview in 2008, though she said she was too “junior” at the time to have affected decision-making very much. 

Even so, Rice later came under criticism for her relationship with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who was supplying and financing a brutal Congolese rebel force known as the March 23 (M23) Movement. While Rice did criticize M23, she avoided linking the group to Rwanda and Kagame, and in 2012 critics said she held up publication of a U.N. report that accused the Rwandan government of protecting M23 leader Bosco Ntaganda, who was wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for committing atrocities, according to several U.N. and human rights sources. (Her spokesperson at the time, Payton Knopf, denied this.) In 2019, the ICC convicted Ntaganda of 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

During a meeting at the U.N. mission of France, after the French ambassador told Rice that the United Nations needed to do more to intervene in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rice replied: “It’s the eastern DRC. If it’s not M23, it’s going to be some other group,” according to an account given by a human rights worker who spoke with several people in the room. The comment was confirmed in other contemporaneous accounts.

“Looking back, it seems cruel to judge someone for what are practically errors of youth, but I think her work on Africa for the Clinton administration demonstrated elements of her character that give reason for pause,” said Peter Rosenblum, a Bard College scholar who criticized Rice and the Clinton administration for backing an invasion of the troubled Congo by Rwanda and Uganda. 

“She is a brilliant professional who relies more on expertise and the judgment of a chosen group of elites than on the messy work of grassroots activism, constituency building, and democracy. In Africa, that led her to rely on a group of military leaders who could project themselves as technocrats at the expense of human rights activists and democracy,” Rosenblum said. “I think she was terribly wrong, but I still admire her and want to see her in government. I just wish she had run for senator of Maine or at least the school board.”

Rice, however, is said to be very close to Biden in outlook. She shares with the former vice president—as she did previously with Obama—a stringent, pared-down view of U.S. national interests that stands apart from Hillary Clinton’s more hawkish view of intervention, describing herself in her memoir as a “realist.” A Biden-Rice administration would likely take a similar view. According to a former Obama administration official who had backed her bid for secretary of state, Rice and Obama at the time were “very much exactly on the same page on all foreign-policy issues and … she represents Obama foreign policy in a way that Kerry doesn’t.” 

Indeed, Kerry later found himself at odds with Obama over intervention in Syria and his generally activist approach to foreign policy (which in the end produced one of the administration’s signal triumphs, the nuclear pact with Iran that Trump has since cashiered). Though Rice ultimately backed the bombing of Libya in 2011 along with Clinton and Power—a policy that later gave rise to a civil war that is still raging—she was against military involvement in Syria at about the same time. Rice also initially resisted British and French efforts on the U.N. Security Council to create a no-fly zone against Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, reportedly telling France’s U.N. ambassador, Gérard Araud, “You’re not going to drag us into your shitty war,” according to a 2012 account by Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch. Ultimately, however, faced with additional demands from the Arab League for intervention, Rice mounted an aggressive campaign for a resolution authorizing airstrikes against Libyan forces to prevent the slaughter of civilians.

She also presided over a state of confusion within the administration over its strategy of fighting the Islamic State in Iraq while simultaneously trying to pull U.S. troops out of the country. At one point, Rice sent a letter to then-House Speaker John Boehner requesting a withdrawal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), additional legislation that was passed in 2002 to enable U.S. military action in Iraq. But the AUMF that Rice wanted withdrawn later became part of the authority the administration invoked to defeat the Islamic State.

“Susan was somewhere between Obama and Samantha” when it came to advocating U.S. intervention abroad, the former Obama administration official said. “She was more activist on Libya and some things than Obama wanted to be, but she also learned from her own experience it isn’t enough to have good intentions. It was principle as seen through the light of experience, so she adopted a certain degree of realism.” 

The biggest issue with Rice’s possible selection as vice president is that she and Biden are both seen as “foreign-policy people,” the former Obama official added. “The only downside I see is that, because their strengths are comparable, you don’t get the division of labor.” 

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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