Twenty Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Susan Rice

Then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaks with the media after Security Council consultations at U.N. headquarters in New York in 2012. (Allison Joyce/Reuters)

Being soft on African dictators, pondering the electoral implications of calling genocide genocide, and giving Richard Holbrooke the finger


 In April 1994, Susan Rice was a rising star on the U.S. National Security Council who worked under Richard Clarke. That year, attention turned to a bloody slaughter in Rwanda; the U.S. officials could see that it was genocide, but officially labeling the massacres genocide would mean that the U.S. would be obligated to act under the terms of the 1948 Genocide Convention. Rice raised other concerns as well:

At an interagency teleconference in late April, she stunned a few of the officials present when she asked, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” Lieutenant Colonel Tony Marley remembers the incredulity of his colleagues at the State Department. “We could believe that people would wonder that,” he says, “but not that they would actually voice it.” Rice does not recall the incident but concedes, “If I said it, it was completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant.”

That account comes from an article written by Samantha Power, a former foreign-policy adviser to the Obama campaign, whom the president then appointed to the National Security Council staff. Power also served as a special assistant to the president on human rights.

Two: After leaving the Clinton administration, Rice became managing director at Intellibridge, a strategic-analysis firm in Washington, D.C. One of her clients was Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda.

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Nearly 20 years after the Rwandan genocide, Rice would again be in an official position shaping U.S. policy on Africa, and again faced criticism she had softened the U.S. response to mass killings in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kagame’s support of violent rebel forces.

Specifically, these critics — who include officials of human rights organizations and United Nations diplomats — say the administration has not put enough pressure on Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, to end his support for the rebel movement whose recent capture of the strategic city of Goma in Congo set off a national crisis in a country that has already lost more than three million people in more than a decade of fighting. Rwanda’s support is seen as vital to the rebel group, known as M23.

But according to rights organizations and diplomats at the United Nations, Ms. Rice has been at the forefront of trying to shield the Rwandan government, and Mr. Kagame in particular, from international censure, even as several United Nations reports have laid the blame for the violence in Congo at Mr. Kagame’s door.

Aides to Ms. Rice acknowledge that she is close to Mr. Kagame and that Mr. Kagame’s government was her client when she worked at Intellibridge, a strategic analysis firm in Washington.

In 2012, Eritrean-American journalist Salem Solomon wrote in the New York Times that “during her career, [Rice] has shown a surprising and unsettling sympathy for Africa’s despots.”

Three: In 1998, as assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Rice played a key role coordinating President Clinton’s twelve-day trip to Africa. Jesse Jackson also traveled with the president, and the two had an awkward exchange during one joint appearance before reporters, according to the New York Times:

Mr. Jackson also outlined an unusually Afrocentric view of American history, arguing that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had more to do with modern democracy than Thomas Jefferson. He asserted that the American economy was built by slaves who were not paid and blacks who were underpaid, making the United States the real debtor nation rather than the countries of Africa.

Susan Rice, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, sat glowering through much of Mr. Jackson’s briefing. When her turn came she commented, “As an African-American, I would like to say that I think slavery is largely irrelevant to what we are about here.”

Four: Later in 1998, Rice became one of the Clinton administration’s preeminent defenders of the airstrike against the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan.

The U.S. Navy launched 13 Tomahawk cruise missiles early in the evening of August 20, destroying the factory. By 2005, officials had concluded “that there was no proof that the plant had been manufacturing or storing nerve gas, as initially suspected by the Americans, or had been linked to Osama bin Laden, who was a resident of Khartoum in the 1980’s.”

Five: In 2003, Rice told the New York Times that former ambassador Joseph Wilson — a registered Democrat who was publicly supporting John Kerry’s presidential bid “played it down the middle of the road politically.” A few days later, Wilson declared his desire to see Karl Rove “frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.”

Six: In 2006, at an event at the Brookings Institution, Rice argued that the Bush administration had been too reluctant to use military force against the Sudanese government, declaring, “I think the first thing that the international community ought to do is to strike Sudanese air assets, their aircraft, their helicopters, their airfields, that have been used relentlessly to attack innocent civilians in Darfur. Another option, albeit more controversial even than airstrikes, would be to blockade Port Sudan.”

Seven: On February 28, 2008, Rice insisted “there had been no contact” between Obama adviser Austan Goolsbee and representatives of the Canadian government. There in fact had been a meeting.

Eight: On March 6, 2008, in an attempt to defend Barack Obama, Rice said of Obama and Hillary Clinton, “they’re both not ready to have that 3 a.m. phone call.” She later appeared to downplay the usefulness of official duties in government. “An American president who spent part of his formative years and young adulthood living in a poor country under a dictatorship brings an understanding of the complexity of things that others may not have. I’m not saying that official travels and congressional delegations are without value, but there are limits to what you can glean from that.”

Nine: On May 12, 2008, she told the New York Times that Obama had not pledged to meet unconditionally with Iran or any other “rogue” state, despite what he had just said at the YouTube debate.

Ten: On July 1, 2008, she insisted that Obama’s pledge to get all combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months was not a deadline.

Eleven: On July 21, 2008, she said Obama “bows to nobody in his understanding of this world.” (A particularly ironic word choice, considering how Obama greeted foreign monarchs during his presidency.)

Twelve: After Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, she declared that the “aggressive,” “belligerent” actor in the situation was . . . John McCain.

Thirteen: One of Rice’s purported success stories, getting the United Nations to impose sanctions on Iran in 2010, was much less than it was touted to be, as China and Russia only supported the measures with the assurance that they would not impair ability to continue trading with Tehran.

Fourteen:Dana Milbank column in 2012 described Rice’s interactions with colleagues as combative and sometimes unprofessional. “Back when she was an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, she appalled colleagues by flipping her middle finger at Richard Holbrooke during a meeting with senior staff at the State Department, according to witnesses. Colleagues talk of shouting matches and insults.”

Fifteen: In a 2012 Maureen Dowd column, an unidentified Obama-administration colleague painted her post-Benghazi appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows as dishonest and driven by ego. “She saw this as a great opportunity to go out and close the stature gap. She was focused on the performance, not the content. People said, ‘It’s sad because it was one of her best performances.’ But it’s not a movie, it’s the news. Everyone in politics thinks, you just get your good talking points and learn them and reiterate them on camera. But what if they’re not good talking points? What if what you’re saying isn’t true, even if you’re saying it well?”

Sixteen: Much of the criticism of Rice in 2012 came as Barack Obama was considering making Rice the next secretary of state; instead, Obama selected John Kerry and later moved Rice to the position of national security adviser. Environmental groups grumbled somewhat about the prospect of Rice as secretary of state, noting that “according to financial disclosure reports, about a third of Rice’s personal net worth is tied up in oil producers, pipeline operators, and related energy industries north of the 49th parallel — including companies with poor environmental and safety records on both U.S. and Canadian soil.”

Seventeen: In July 2013, then National Security Adviser Rice sent a letter to House speaker John Boehner requesting a withdrawal of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in 2002 to enable U.S. military action in Iraq. She did not consult with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel or anyone else at the Pentagon before sending the letter. Boehner ignored the letter, and by September 2014, the Obama administration’s position was that its military actions against ISIS were legally authorized by the 2002 AUMF . . . the same authorization that Rice had argued should be repealed a year earlier.

Eighteen: In a December 2013 interview with 60 Minutes, Rice declared, “The fact that we have not had a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11 should not be diminished.” The Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured 264 others, had occurred eight months earlier.

Nineteen: In 2014, Rice’s management of the National Security Council received some poor reviews. “Despite an NSC staff that’s grown from 50 under George H.W. Bush to more than 300 under Obama — in part because White House support and Homeland Security staffs have been folded into the NSC — ‘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,’ according to another recently departed senior administration official. ‘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.”

Twenty: In June 2014, defending the Obama administration’s deal to secure the release of former Taliban captive Bowe Bergdahl, Rice contended Bergdahl served the United States with “honor and distinction.” Bergdahl was court-martialed for deserting his post, pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, and was dishonorably discharged, reduced in rank, and fined $1,000 per month from his pay for ten months, with no prison time.

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