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The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

A Window Into Obama’s Foreign Policy

The former Clinton-era State Dept. official shares with the president-elect a frustration with conventional foreign-policy thinking. Impatient with ideology, she focuses on transnational threats, challenges and opportunities -- befitting the emphasis of a new generation of global strategists. Her experience with Africa has taught her invaluable lessons.

Tobey Strickland
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Nov 14, 2008

Susan Rice (flickr)
Susan Rice (flickr)

In April 2007, as the United States was enmeshed in two wars, a Brookings Institution scholar and Clinton-era State Dept. official testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in favor of taking military action as a last resort to stop the genocide in Darfur.

“A collective shame” was what Susan Rice, now one of President-elect Barack Obama’s closest foreign-policy advisers, called the international community’s failure to act. Rice was hardly sanguine about what it would take to stem the genocide, nor did she exhibit a preference for taking military action.

In passionate but clear language, she instead proposed a multistep policy of robust financial sanctions against Sudan and the imposition of a no-fly zone around the afflicted western Sudanese province. But if that failed, Rice continued, a starker measure should follow.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“The U.S. should press for a Chapter 7 U.N. resolution that issues Sudan an ultimatum,” Rice told the committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), now the vice president-elect. “Accept the unconditional deployment of the U.N. force or face military consequences. The resolution would authorize enforcement by U.N. member states collectively or individually.”

As for the potential consequences and risks, Rice added, “We have to acknowledge that they can’t be eliminated. Yet we also have to acknowledge the daily cost of the status quo of a feckless policy characterized by bluster and retreat. … I would submit, Mr. Chairman, Sen. Lugar, that that cost is too high.”

Rice’s testimony could offer a window into the next four years of U.S. foreign policy. According to interviews with longtime associates, the woman who was just named to head the foreign-policy transition team for an Obama administration — and herself a likely candidate for deputy national security adviser or other top position — is a rigorous thinker and thorough pragmatist, impatient with ideology and incompetence.

Over the past year and a half, Rice has become increasingly close to Obama, owing in large part to their mutual frustration with conventional foreign-policy thinking. Unlike many seasoned foreign-policy hands, Rice’s focuses less on traditional state-to-state relationships and more on transnational threats, challenges and opportunities — befitting the emphasis of a new generation of global strategists. With Rice at the helm, former colleagues said, an Obama foreign policy would likely be bold but not dogmatic.

Rice, who turns 44 Monday, is the youngest person ever to become an assistant secretary of state, a position she attained at age 33. A protege of Madeleine K. Albright, the former secretary of state, Rice joined the Clinton administration in 1993 as an staffer on the National Security Council, after a stint at the McKinsey & Company business-consulting firm.

On the NSC, Rice earned a reputation for pragmatism, which she carried over to the State Dept. as assistant secretary for African affairs, a post she held from 1997 to 2001. But her record was not without its blemishes.

According to human-rights expert Samantha Power’s study of the U.S. reaction to genocide, “A Problem From Hell,” Rice didn’t distinguish herself in the Clinton administration’s lax response to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. As an Africa expert on the NSC, she shocked an interagency conference call by interjecting domestic politics into the discussion of the administration’s policy options.

“If we use the word ‘genocide,’” Rice allegedly asked her colleagues, “and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” Rice later told Power — who herself became a trusted foreign-policy adviser to Obama before leaving the campaign during the Democratic primaries — that while she didn’t remember saying that, “If I said it, it was completely inappropriate.”

Her colleagues said that Rice’s willingness to subject herself to the scrutiny she expects of others is a characteristic trait. “She’s always examining not just what she thinks but why she thinks the way she does,” said Jane Holl Lute, the assistant secretary general of the United Nations for peace-building and a friend of Rice’s. “She’s one of the most honest thinkers I know.”

About Rwanda, Rice later told Power, “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,” which might explain Rice’s passion about Darfur.

Something that also might explain it is Rice’s facility with nontraditional foreign-policy issues. Former Sen. Tim Wirth, the Clinton administration’s undersecretary of state for global affairs from 1993 to 1997, said Rice saw connectivity in the world’s problems, instead of viewing them through the traditional prism of individual state power.

“She was one of the few people to live in the foreign-policy world who understood global issues, transnational issues like human rights, climate change and terrorism,” said Wirth, who worked with Rice when she was at the NSC and who now heads the United Nations Foundation. “The foreign-policy community is largely about political relationships. That’s what drives the [typical] foreign-policy world. But the new one is transnational problems, problems that don’t have passports.”

What position Rice could receive in an Obama administration is a guessing game. She has been mentioned for everything from deputy national-security adviser to U.N. ambassador to even secretary of state — all a function of her bond with the president-elect.

The only knock against Rice is a reputation for abrasiveness. A rumor circulating in foreign-policy circles this month is that she and a top Obama defense adviser, Richard Danzig, have developed a frosty relationship, though it is hard to get Obama aides to explain the source of any turbulence.

Wirth said Rice’s sense of dedication is occasionally misunderstood as harshness. “She’s very calm, very careful, but once she determines where to go, she’s very firm about that,” said Wirth, “and that’s where that comes from — people saying she’s abrasive. She’s very firm when a decision gets made.”

Rice herself declined to comment for this article. But in February, she indicated to me that an Obama administration would need to be bold in differentiating itself from the Bush administration to restore American global standing.

“After eight years of George Bush,” Rice told me for an American Prospect cover story, “when the next president puts his or her hand on the Bible to be sworn in, the U.S. is going to get one brief second look [from the world] about whether the U.S. truly learned to change from its past mistakes, recent and historic, and whether we’re again the kind of America people look to lead in a constructive fashion, or whether we’re hopeless.”

What that means exactly is hard to say. But Rice challenged the idea that Obama’s more controversial foreign-policy proposals — setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, negotiating with foreign adversaries, bolstering the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and renewing the hunt for Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan — were, as his critics maintained, imprudent. “I don’t see it as radical at all,” she told me in February. “I see it as rational, wise and long overdue.”

Obama-watchers have seen Rice quickly build a rapport with the president-elect, something that will aid Rice in staffing the foreign-policy team. “It indicates they’ll be very pragmatic,” Wirth said, “and focused on strengthening the international machinery, to regain America’s reputation around the world. And she’ll just be reflecting what Obama has said.”

Another colleague, John Prendergast, an Africa aide on the NSC after Rice moved to the State Dept., was similarly impressed. “She was a brilliant strategist with a big vision, who was relentless in pursuing the president’s objectives,” remembered Prendergast, who now runs the Enough Project, an anti-genocide activist group. “She had a firm command of all of the relevant issues, and a keen insight into how to move decisions through the system so that the U.S. could act in a relevant and decisive manner.”

Rice was one of the few Democratic foreign-policy luminaries to oppose the 2002 invasion of Iraq. Prendergast said he was not surprised by her position. “Susan has an uncanny ability to weigh all sides to a situation and see through rhetoric and diversion,” he said.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson Center, came to know Rice when they worked on the Phoenix Initiative over the last four years, an attempt by progressive foreign-policy thinkers to craft a post-Bush grand strategy.

Slaughter’s assessment of Rice echoed Wirth’s. “She has a very holistic vision of national security,” Slaughter said, “one that includes the problems of weak and failing states and the overall imperative of standing for increased prosperity and justice for all people around the world.

“That doesn’t make her a starry-eyed one-worlder,” Slaughter continued, “although Obama may soon be giving that term a different and far stronger connotation, but it means that her experience with Africa has sensitized her to the many ways people can die violently — not just in conventional war.”

Wirth and others said Rice would be “very loyal to Obama,” to use Wirth’s words. Another former colleague, who requested anonymity, added that Rice doesn’t have an agenda separate from Obama’s.

Slaughter added that Rice’s potential ascendancy represented a milestone in gender equity for the foreign-policy community. “It is very important to women in foreign policy that Susan is not married to her job,” Slaughter said. “She has a great husband and two young kids, and she managed to balance it. After Madeleine Albright, whose kids were grown, and Condi Rice, who does not have a family, that’s a very important message to send. After all, most men in foreign policy manage to have families, too.”

Tobey Strickland | Reiki Master. In the process of becoming a real estate mogul. Brewery aficionado. Netflix series critic who is semi-professional. Every day, I assist clients in locating their ideal dream house. After I finish my work for the day, you can find me at Crossfit, doing yoga, or meeting up with friends to listen to live music around town. I enjoy traveling regularly, whether it's relaxing on a South American beach or hiking through Asia's mountains. Now it's your turn. What are your favorite places to visit?


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