NEW YORK – 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 Barack Obama’s choice to be the next national security adviser, saw her main chance to become secretary of state dissipate before her eyes, 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. (My thoughts about the attacks on Rice can be found here.)
Rice was forced to withdraw her name, and Sen. 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 (critics would call it overcentralized, and they have a point) the secretary of state, even one of Kerry’s stature, does comparatively little to set the administration’s overarching policy. Kerry seems to spend most of his waking hours pursuing a semi-quixotic Middle East peace plan. 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, I think, 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.
In the period when the Senate’s scapegoating of Rice was at its peak, Obama seemed frustrated by the manner in which she was treated. Her appointment today is partly payback for her loyalty, and a thumb in the eyes of her Senate critics.
It is also a sign that the president and Rice are in sync on a broad set of issues, and here is where it gets interesting.
Rice is known as a liberal interventionist (as is the woman being named to replace her at the U.N., the writer and former National Security Council staffer Samantha Power), but advocates of greater American involvement in the Syrian civil war, the most acute problem Rice will face in her new position, 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 Assad’s regime could mean a victory for al-Qaida-like groups that represent some of the strongest elements of the Syrian opposition.
The Obama administration is desperately seeking to avoid the creation of terrorist havens in Syria, because they would represent a direct national security threat to the U.S. and would require an armed American response.
The American experience in Libya — not the Benghazi attack, which was searing in its own way — has also chastened Obama’s national-security team: The intervention on behalf of rebels fighting the late, unlamented dictator Moammar Gadhafi, may very well have saved thousands of innocent lives, but the fallout from Gadhafi’s overthrow (the rise of al-Qaida-like groups, the spread of Libyan weapons across Africa, the general misery and instability that now afflicts the country) has taught Obama’s advisers, Rice included, important lessons about the unpredictability of intervention.
Politically the administration has seen no upside to the Libyan intervention — it was criticized for recklessness by both Democrats and Republicans — and in a very political White House, these domestic considerations often take precedence.
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 notably, I’m told, 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 suffered, post-Benghazi, because she had previously made little effort to befriend senators and members of the news media, among others.
Lately, perhaps in preparation for a job she suspected was coming her way, she has become more, well, diplomatic. But she’s still not diplomatic enough for some: One of the darkly humorous moments of the Benghazi witch hunt came when some Republicans complained to me that Rice had manhandled the Russian delegation to the U.N. This may have been the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution that Republicans were worried about the feelings of senior Russian officials.
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 believe themselves to be at the core of the national security operation.
Susan Rice is not Condoleezza Rice, who was steamrolled on more than one occasion 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org.) is a Bloomberg View columnist.