Susan Rice: A valuable team player
Editors Baltimore Times | 6/6/2013, 9:09 p.m.
Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa during the Clinton administration, was among the first national security figures to join the Obama campaign.
The last few months have also shown that Rice has the deep and unwavering loyalty of a president who is often seen to be too cool and aloof for his own good. After her television appearances in the wake of the Benghazi, Libya, attacks made her a lightning rod for criticism, he nonetheless drove forward in his attempt to name her Secretary of State. When that didn't work— the opposition was too heated, the timing wasn't right— he didn't give up, but instead, set in motion the events that led to her being named his top national security aide Wednesday.
Of all the things on Rice's resume— her blue-chip academic background, time at the National Security Council, the State Department, the Brookings Institution and the United Nations— what counts the most is this relationship with the president.
First, she will have to dial back the bravado and contentiousness that have marked her tenure at the United Nations. Her sharp elbows and quick wit often turned into sharp rebukes that left some of her diplomatic counterparts bruised.
If Rice appears to be muscling the military brass she will interact with or if she is seen not as an honest broker but a rival, tensions could result. The most successful national security advisers— such as Brent Scowcroft— have done their best work in the background.
Even Rice's closeness to the president can be a trap. Former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was extremely close to President George W. Bush, but that led her to devote too much of her time to the job of staffing for the president and not enough to the important NSC work of managing what was called long ago "the policy hill." That designation referred to the part of the job that involves tapping all the executive branch agencies to formulate policy options and recommendations for the president and then carefully ensuring the implementation of the policies ultimately chosen by those agencies.
However, the biggest obstacles to her ensuring that Obama leaves office with a solid foreign policy record, come from the problems we face overseas. While the signature successes of killing Osama bin Laden and winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are behind this administration, deep unrest continues in those countries. It continues, too, in Libya, where Rice was instrumental in pushing U.S. intervention; across the turbulent Middle East; in Africa, where Rice brings special insights and experience; and in the complexities of managing the shifting balance of power in Asia.
No matter how good the policy process she shepherds, the fact is that we live in a messy world at a time when the United States is unable or unwilling to exert force as it once did, when our allies are similarly inward looking, due to economic stresses, and our enemies are shape-shifters embracing new technologies and techniques— and in places such as Syria, very hard to distinguish from those we might support.
Rice is the most natural choice for the NSC job— she knows her team and all the issues. She has the president's full trust and backing. She has shown that she is not afraid to lean in, encourage risk taking, embrace the strategic use of U.S. power, amplified and validated by multilateral initiatives. And as she will soon discover, for all that, even the most powerful people in the most powerful nation in the history of the planet often find themselves at the mercy of international events beyond their control.