AP FILE PHOTO
This June 7 photo shows U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice listening during a news conference at the UN.
WASHINGTON — Susan E. Rice was playing stand-in on the morning of Sept. 16 when she appeared on all five Sunday news programs, a few days after the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been the White House’s logical choice to discuss the chaotic events in the Middle East. But administration officials said she was drained after a harrowing week consoling the families of those who died, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. And Clinton steers clear of the Sunday shows anyway.
So instead, Rice, the ambassador to the U.N., delivered her now-famous account of the episode. Reciting talking points supplied by intelligence agencies, she said that the Benghazi siege appeared to be a spontaneous protest rather than a premeditated terrorist attack. Within days, Republicans in Congress were calling for her head.
In her sure-footed ascent of the foreign-policy ladder, Rice has rarely shrunk from a fight. But now that she appears poised to claim the top rung — White House aides say she is President Barack Obama’s favored candidate for secretary of state — this sharp-tongued, self-confident diplomat finds herself in the middle of a bitter feud in which she is largely a bystander.
“Susan had a reputation, fairly or not, as someone who could run a little hot and shoot from the hip,” said John Norris, a foreign-policy expert at the Center for American Progress. “If someone had told me that the biggest knock on her was going to be that she too slavishly followed the talking points on Benghazi, I would have been shocked.”
At the U.N., and in posts in the Clinton White House, Rice, who turned 48 on Saturday, has earned a reputation as a blunt advocate, relentless on issues like pressuring the regime in Sudan or intervening in Libya to prevent a slaughter by Moammar Gadhafi.
She was a Rhodes scholar, has degrees from Stanford and Oxford, a Rolodex of contacts and a relationship with Obama sealed during his 2008 campaign. So her ascension to lead the State Department would be less a blow for diversity — she would, after all, be the second black woman named Rice to hold the job — than the natural capstone to a fast-track career.
Yet the firestorm over Benghazi raises more basic questions: Is Rice the best candidate to succeed Clinton as the nation’s chief diplomat? Does she have the diplomatic finesse to handle thorny problems in the Middle East? And even if Obama gets the votes for her confirmation, has the episode so tainted her that it would be hard for her to thrive in the job?
Rice’s supporters say she has compiled a solid record at the U.N., winning the passage of resolutions that impose strict sanctions on Iran and North Korea. Diplomats praise her for re-engaging with the institution after deep strains during the George W. Bush administration. But even those who back her tend to emphasize factors like her ties to Obama, an advantage that Clinton, for all her celebrity, did not have.
“Given that he’s probably the most withholding president on foreign policy since Nixon, if anyone can get him to delegate, not dominate, it’s Rice,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “That would be good for her, and for our foreign policy.”
While some in the State Department are wary of her, recalling her stormy tenure as a 30-something assistant secretary for African affairs during the Clinton administration, Rice has a core of support among Obama’s aides, particularly those who worked with her on the 2008 campaign. They insist that Benghazi will not derail her chances. Some analysts said Obama’s defense of her at a news conference last week was so impassioned that he had left himself little room to put forward an alternative, like Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Still, other longtime Washington observers question if Obama would risk a battle over his secretary of state when he needs to cut a deal with Republicans on the budget and taxes.
Certainly, the vitriol between him and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who charged last week that Rice had misled the public and called her “not qualified” for the State post, suggests that a confirmation vote for her would be a toxic affair. She has other powerful defenders, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said that Rice had done nothing wrong and was a victim of character assassination.
Even David H. Petraeus, the fallen director of the CIA, came to her aid Friday, testifying behind closed doors that Rice read the talking points on Benghazi supplied to her. Republicans said she and the administration were trying to play down a terrorist plot for political reasons. Rice, who has kept a low profile since her TV appearances, declined to comment for this article.
“The attacks are patently unfair and mean-spirited,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “Susan’s record at the U.N. is exceptional.” He added that Rice, who was an early supporter of Obama’s and advised him on foreign policy, is in addition a longtime friend of the president.
A scrappy point guard at the National Cathedral School, where she was also valedictorian, Rice is one of several basketball players in Obama’s inner circle. He and his wife, Michelle, have invited Rice and her husband — Ian Cameron, a Canadian-born TV producer — to the White House for private dinners.
Even before those invitations, Rice had an entree to elite Washington. The daughter of Emmett J. Rice, a governor in the Federal Reserve System, and Lois Dixon Rice, an education policy expert, Rice spent her childhood mixing with family friends like Madeline K. Albright, another secretary of state.
At 28, she was an aide in President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, where she once questioned embracing the term “genocide” in Rwanda because it could put Clinton in an awkward position in midterm elections. At the State Department, diplomats recall her lecturing leaders in Africa decades her senior.
Her relationship to Hillary Clinton has been distant, officials said, in part because Rice embraced Obama’s candidacy rather than Clinton’s rival campaign. But the two see plenty of each other, and Clinton’s advisers say the relationship is fine. Rice has an office at the State Department and commutes between New York and Washington, where she and Cameron are raising their two children.
In New York, Rice has had little use for the bland artifice of diplomatic language. When Russia and China blocked a resolution condemning the brutal crackdown in Syria, Rice tweeted, “Disgusted that Russia and China prevented the U.N. Security Council from fulfilling its sole purpose.” At the White House, she tangled with Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration, and became so immersed in that country’s looming split that subordinates termed her the “Sudan desk officer.”
By her own account, Rice’s fervor is fueled by the Clinton administration’s inaction in Rwanda. Years later, she told Samantha Power, then a journalist writing about the episode, that “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.”
Last year, working with Power (now herself in the National Security Council), Clinton, and other officials, Rice helped persuade the president to back NATO military intervention in Libya.
In some ways, friends say, Rice’s appearance on the Sunday shows underlines how she has evolved from a headstrong young staffer into a disciplined senior member of Obama’s team.
“She’s really tough, but there is a difference in how she’s tough,” said Harold H. Koh, the State Department’s legal adviser. “During the Clinton administration, there was a feeling that she had to be tough to earn her place at the table. Now she’s more comfortable.”MORE IN Wire News
- Most Popular
- Most Emailed
- MEDIA GALLERY