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Rice’s detractors will come to appreciate her toughness

By Jeffrey Goldberg
Bloomberg News

Revenge is a dish best served cold. Except when it’s best served hot.

Just a few months ago, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and now President Obama’s choice to be the next national security adviser, saw her main chance to become secretary of state dissipate as Senate Republicans (with John McCain and Lindsey Graham in the lead) excoriated her for, as they saw it, misleading the public about the attacks on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year.

Rice was forced to withdraw her name, and Senator John Kerry was awarded the job. Now Rice will be, in effect, Kerry’s supervisor. McCain and Graham, by turning Rice into the scapegoat of the Benghazi debacle, have inadvertently allowed the president to bring her into the innermost ring of power, in a role that requires no Senate confirmation.

In the highly centralized White House foreign-policy and national-security operation the secretary of state, even one of Kerry’s stature, does comparatively little to set the administration’s overarching policy. It will be Rice’s job to interpret the president’s broadest wishes and put them into place across several government departments. Her influence will be especially pronounced because she is part of Obama’s original foreign-policy team: In what could have been a near-suicidal career move, Rice, a former official in President Bill Clinton’s administration, signed on to Obama’s campaign when his victory didn’t seem at all assured.

Rice is known as a liberal interventionist (as is the woman being named to replace her at the UN, former National Security Council staffer Samantha Power), but advocates of greater U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, the most acute problem Rice will face, will be disappointed to learn that she isn’t particularly optimistic about the effect that any U.S. action – such as imposing a no- fly zone – will have on the war’s outcome.

Rice, like the president, seems focused on the possibility that the downfall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime could mean a victory for al Qaida-like groups. The Obama administration is desperately seeking to avoid the creation of terrorist havens in Syria.

The U.S. experience in Libya – not the Benghazi attack, which was searing – has also chastened Obama’s national-security team: The intervention on behalf of rebels fighting dictator Moammar Gadhafi, may very well have saved thousands of innocent lives, but the fallout from his overthrow (the rise of al Qaida-like groups, the spread of Libyan weapons across Africa, the misery and instability that now afflicts the country) has taught Obama’s advisers, Rice included, important lessons about the unpredictability of intervention.

That said, Rice is, by disposition and ideology, a strong advocate of American power, and her formative experience in government came when she watched, impotently, as hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The Clinton administration had the power to intervene but didn’t. Rice is committed to preventing other Rwandas, but, she doesn’t see what is happening in Syria as the equivalent. At least not yet.

Rice has been known as a tough, sometimes brusque, operator. She had previously made little effort to befriend senators and members of the news media, among others. But lately she has become more diplomatic.

I suspect that McCain and Graham will come, over time, to appreciate Rice’s toughness. I’m not sure I can say the same for the trio of aging white male ex-senators – Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Kerry – who see themselves as the core of the national-security operation. Susan Rice is not Condoleezza Rice, who was steamrolled more than once by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, when she served as President George W. Bush’s national security adviser. Susan Rice won’t be easily outmaneuvered.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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