Politics & Policy

Rehabilitating Susan Rice

Her media friends describe her as “energetic” and “muscular.” But to what end?

The rehabilitation of Susan Rice has begun.

As national-security adviser to President Obama, she plays a critical role in shaping our foreign policy. At this juncture, that means she has a great deal to say about what we will do in the Middle East, particularly Egypt and Syria. In my view, however, she remains a significant part of the problem in the bungling of U.S. foreign policy.

After serving in the Clinton and Obama administrations in various foreign-policy roles, Ms. Rice seemed destined last fall to become secretary of state when Hillary Clinton stepped down. But her statements concerning the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi last September, when she was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, sidetracked that dream.

Now, in a broadcast on National Public Radio and an article in the New York Times, Ms. Rice is described as back on her game.

On August 9, NPR’s Ari Shapiro broadcast an admiring profile of Ms. Rice. “‘Action’ is a word that comes up a lot when people talk about Rice,” he reported. “People call her style energetic, no-nonsense or rigorous.”

Even though Shapiro’s report mentioned some of her failures, it tended to gloss over them as learning experiences. These included her failure as an adviser to President Clinton to recommend intervention in Rwanda in 1994, when an estimated 1 million people were massacred, and her failure to talk truthfully about what happened in Benghazi, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others died in a terrorist attack.

The Sunday following the attack, Ms. Rice made numerous television appearances during which she defended the administration, arguing that the attack against the U.S. facilities in Benghazi was spontaneous rather than a planned terrorist operation. Those comments turned out to be false. To be sure, no one supposes that Ms. Rice produced the “talking points” all by herself. But she is the one who went around the Sunday talk shows as the public voice of the administration.

The secretary of state requires Senate confirmation, and before she had been formally nominated the truth about Benghazi had started to come out. Facing a bruising and potentially embarrassing battle in the Senate, she instead was offered and took the job as national-security adviser, which does not require congressional approval. The adviser — a position Henry Kissinger molded into one of the most powerful in the White House — sifts through the opinions of various agencies and departments, and provides the president with recommendations.

In an almost breathless piece of praise on August 16, New York Times reporter Mark Landler described how hard Ms. Rice was working at this task while accompanying the vacationing president on Martha’s Vineyard, and how she was part of the social gatherings there, too. She even brought her husband and children for some family time.

“After Mr. Obama left to play golf,” Landler wrote, “Ms. Rice, 48, returned to her own lodgings to consult with aides at the White House. After 5 p.m., the two spoke again, and Mr. Obama signed off on the plan [concerning Egypt].”

Landler went on to say that analysts wondered if Ms. Rice “would bring a more muscular, idealistic cast to Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.”

In the past two months, Ms. Rice and her team have faced a variety of important foreign-policy issues, especially the military coup in Egypt and subsequent massacres of Muslim Brotherhood adherents, and the alleged use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad’s troops in Syria, in an attack in which 300 people were killed.

What is the record?

On the Syrian front, Ms. Rice launched what I believe may be the first example of Twitter diplomacy. Using her Twitter account, @AmbassadorRice, she tweeted at 4:39 p.m. last Friday: “What is Bashar al Assad hiding? The world is demanding an independent investigation of Wednesday’s apparent CW [chemical weapon] attack. Immediately.”

A minute later — having bumped up against the limit of 140 characters in her first tweet — she added: “Otherwise, we’ll all conclude that Assad is guilty and lying-again.”

Ironically — given the administration’s repeated backing off from the “red lines” it has laid down to Assad — this was one of the toughest lines that anyone has taken. But the Obama administration does not have many options for retaliating if it should be proved that Mr. Assad used chemical weapons. We could launch some cruise missiles at Syrian installations, such as a command-and-control center or an air base. However, such locations are already heavily fortified because of the two-year rebellion.

And we should remember that one of the most famous errant cruise-missile attacks — on a pharmaceutical plant thought to be a chemical-weapons factory in Sudan — came on Ms. Rice’s watch in the Clinton administration in 1998.

On Egypt, the administration has canceled joint military exercises while other actions are under review, including a possible cutoff of $1.5 billion in yearly aid. Almost every one of our allies, including Israel, opposes the cancellation of the aid. But it seems as if the administration is tilting in that direction.

The Western media, along with the Obama administration, have played an odd role in Egypt. They hailed the original uprising against President Hosni Mubarak — only to be dismayed when the wrong people won the subsequent election. Then when millions of Egyptians rose up against those rulers from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Western media and the administration said that wasn’t right, because the Brotherhood was democratically elected. In fact, Mohamed Morsi received only 25 percent of the vote in the first round and narrowly defeated a discredited crony of the ousted President Mubarak in the second round. After that, the Brotherhood launched a vicious campaign against every opposition figure and every non-Sunni group in the country, including the Coptic Christians, who represent 10 percent of the population.

I do not endorse the killing of hundreds of the Brotherhood’s supporters. Nevertheless, the government provided ample warning to leave the Nasr City camp, and video evidence exists that the government security police were fired upon first by Brotherhood supporters at a mosque.

As for the cancellation of aid to Egypt, it would eliminate our already tenuous influence in that country, which used to be one of our strongest allies. Also, it would create the impression that the United States backs the Brotherhood — a group opposed by millions of Egyptians.

Ms. Rice is not the only one responsible for the mess in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, but she plays an important role. It seems to me that her media friends should wait to begin her rehabilitation until she has provided significant game changers in Egypt and Syria.

— Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News, and 20/20.






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