BY THE TIME Susan Rice withdrew her name from the running for secretary of state earlier this month, she had emerged in the media as one of Washington’s most nefarious personalities. After Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham denounced the American ambassador to the United Nations for “misleading” the American people over the September 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, she was accused of, among other things, having a “personality ‘disorder,’” of harboring a “breathless” confidence in African strongmen, of being a “headmistress,” of having “sharp elbows,” of having a voice “always right on the edge of a screech,” of being an interventionist, of not intervening when it mattered.
“Was she also responsible for the drop in temperature between Tuesday and today?” snapped Gayle Smith, a senior director on the National Security Council (NSC). Smith belongs to an army of Rice loyalists who sprang to her defense, in lieu of a nominee’s war room. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton privately made supportive sojourns to Capitol Hill; Special Assistant to the President Samantha Power became such a fervent advocate that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked a mutual friend to tell her to tone it down. “It’s having the opposite effect,” he reportedly complained. (Kristof denies he gave Power “private advice on how to do her job.”) Although President Barack Obama initially defended Rice, by the time she decided to withdraw, he did not attempt to change her mind. “I’m not saying it was a nudge,” says one Rice ally. “I’m also not saying anyone begged her to stay.”
Still, there’s no reason to think that Rice’s career is over. Administration sources are not ruling out the possibility that she could be tapped to serve as national security advisor, a post that does not require Senate confirmation. And regardless of her title, Rice will remain one of Obama’s most trusted advisers. She was instrumental in the formation of his foreign policy before he came to the White House—an experience she describes as “a meeting of the minds”—and her family and his are now friends.
In her quick ascent through the foreign policy establishment—Rhodes scholar, Oxford Ph.D., one of the youngest assistant secretaries of state at age 33, veteran of many a Democratic presidential campaign—Rice has a public persona that is somehow both forceful and elusive. The many critiques leveled at her tend to distill into a contradictory assessment—that she is too political and not political enough.
According to one person who has worked with both Rice and Clinton, the latter is a more skilled politician. Rice, he says, works with a tight inner circle, and politics do not come naturally to her. Power implied that Rice’s chances were hurt because she is “not a leaker. She doesn’t cultivate relationships with journalists by spilling her guts about what goes on in the Situation Room.” It also doesn’t help that Rice, who has two school-age children, socializes sparingly. “She’s not a regular on the cocktail-party circuit,” says Brooke Anderson, Rice’s former deputy at the U.N. According to Rice’s brother, John, “Her style is not to proactively try to shape how people view her.”
At the United Nations, Rice has accomplished a lot—new sanctions against Iran and North Korea, a broad mandate for intervention in Libya—and has largely repaired the damage wreaked by her most colorful predecessor, John Bolton. When Obama delivered his Cairo address, she invited the U.N. ambassadors from Muslim countries to her residence at the Waldorf Astoria to watch the speech. Her appeal to the Security Council to intervene in Libya was so powerful that “you could hear a pin drop,” according to someone in the closed-door meeting.
But Rice’s get-it-done approach can sometimes resemble yukking it up with the guys in the locker room. “She doesn’t like diplomatic niceties, which is a nice way to put it,” says one human rights activist at the United Nations. Rice once reportedly mocked the French U.N. ambassador, Gérard Araud, for being reluctant to venture outside his comfort zone on Security Council trips to places like Haiti and South Sudan—by calling Araud “a virgin.” “You don’t do that in that world,” one stunned source says. “It’s not a pub.” (Rice told me she likes Araud “a great deal” and adds that they are often irreverent with each other.) Rice’s teachers, though, insist that her bluntness is appropriate. “There’s this myth out there that diplomacy has to involve communication that is saccharine,” says Richard Clarke, a former boss. In private, he says, “it’s all bare knuckles.”
Lost in all of this is Rice herself. I met with her a few days before her candidacy for secretary of state collapsed, in her office at the U.S. Mission in New York. She has deceptively soft eyes underlined with her signature electric blue eyeliner; her expression fluctuates constantly between laughter and a formidable game face. Watching the furor over Benghazi, a city that she helped save, had been “an out-of-body experience,” she told me. “I turn on the television and I think, ‘Well, that person they’re showing looks like me.’ But then the person they’re talking about, that’s not me. That’s not me at all.”
THE NARRATIVE of Rice’s foreign policy evolution has been that of a haunted realist reborn as an impassioned interventionist. One leading nongovernmental proponent of intervention in Libya said that, when he was urging the Obama administration to take action, Power and Rice were more responsive than most. Why was Rice amenable? “Rwanda.”
Rice grappled with the Rwandan nightmare during her very first job in government—as director for international organizations and peacekeeping at the NSC during Bill Clinton’s first term. When the genocide broke out, Madeleine Albright, then the U.N. ambassador, was instructed to advocate for the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers, but pushed to maintain some international presence. “I didn’t like my instructions,” Albright recalls. “I thought I could get a better answer out of the NSC, and I didn’t.” Clarke, the coordinator of the NSC’s counterterrorism group, and his staffer, Rice, were two of the people who wouldn’t provide a better answer, and observers recall blowout fights. (This put Rice in an awkward position, since Albright had helped her to get the job.)
Power’s book, A Problem from Hell, quotes Rice arguing against labeling the Rwandan carnage as genocide during an inter-agency discussion in 1994: “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] elections?” Rice told Power she didn’t recall the comment, which she deemed “inappropriate.” Since then, she and Power have become close, and Power says she sees a gulf between what her sources told her and the colleague she has come to know. “What I can say is that, on the issues that are documented in the book, I can’t imagine someone that is better at these issues than the person that I now work with,” she says. Rice calls Power’s account of her role “an albatross around our collective necks.”
After the genocide, Rice traveled to Rwanda several times, and she has spoken about her experience repeatedly. She recalls walking through a churchyard littered with bodies—“think mummies,” she says. But when I ask if Rwanda had singularly shaped her foreign policy worldview, she snorts dismissively. “This is hugely overblown,” she says.
According to an old friend and Clinton administration colleague, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Rice performed her own Ricean exorcism, known as COE, or “correction of errors,” in business-school speak. “She was very moved by what she saw but also looked at where we, as an administration, could have been better,” says Burwell. “She is a very warm person, but she is also a pragmatic person.” Rice told me that the chief lesson she derived was that all options should be extensively explored. “What we did most wrong in the U.S. government was that we never even actively considered or debated whether we should do anything to stop the genocide,” she says. “By anything, I mean anything involving intervention. Now, maybe the answer to that would’ve been, should’ve been no. But we never debated it, discussed it. It wasn’t on anybody’s mind, and it wasn’t editorialized about, and it wasn’t debated on the floor of Congress.”
She added, “To suggest that I’m repenting for [Rwanda] or that I’m haunted by that or that I don’t sleep because of that or that every policy I’ve ever implemented subsequently is driven by that is garbage.” In her line of work, Rice notes, she has visited many a war zone. “I’m a little too experienced. I’ve seen enough other things such that what’s shaped me is much, much, much, much, much broader than any single event or experience.”
BORN IN WASHINGTON in November 1964, Rice once told The Washington Post that she is “a D.C. girl through and through.” She grew up in Shepherd Park, a black and Jewish area in the city’s Northwest. Her father, Emmett, had a Ph.D. in economics from Berkeley and would go on to be a governor of the Federal Reserve; her mother, Lois, worked in education policy and was a midwife of the Pell Grant. Rice and her younger brother, John, would take the bus through some of Washington’s rougher neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park to two of its most prestigious schools. When they arrived at their destinations—National Cathedral School for Susan, St. Albans for John—most of the faces around them were white. Susan worked on the Hill every summer in high school. Albright was a family friend; her then-husband was Emmett’s tennis partner.
Yet Rice bristles at the suggestion that she comes from the Washington elite. The parents in Shepherd Park were first-generation college-educated blacks; the parents at National Cathedral School belonged to still-segregated country clubs. Emmett grew up in South Carolina in the 1920s; Lois’s parents were Jamaican immigrants. Lois’s mother, a maid, and her father, a janitor, sent her to Radcliffe by mortgaging and remortgaging the house. “The family mindset, experience, and history,” Rice says, “was one of striving.” Race doesn’t dominate her worldview, but she can be sensitive to being seen as the token African American. In a 1998 interview with the Post, Rice seethes when she feels she’s being labeled an affirmative-action baby: “You don’t get to use me to feel better about your own failure to perform,” she said. “I’m not going to give you that.”
Rice also quibbles with the notion that she grew up in politics. “My parents were into policy and my father government, but not politics,” she says. “A lot of my classmates were from families that were into politics.” Still, until she finished college, she was sure that she wanted to be a senator. “And then somewhere in my early twenties, I decided that I did not have the—” she pauses for a long time and shifts in her armchair. “I guess the patience to be a politician.”
IF RICE DID penance for Rwanda, she did it at the State Department, where she was an assistant secretary for African affairs from 1997 to 2001, a job into which Albright—by then secretary of state—ushered her. In that position, Rice became “one of the key architects in American reengagement in Africa,” says a colleague who served with her.
Politically, though, Rice had a tough time. At meetings, “she was often the youngest person in the room,” recalls her assistant during that period, Annette Bushelle. “Those older and more seasoned officers—most of them male—thought that she was a bit young and inexperienced.” This led, perhaps, to a self-reinforcing spiral. Rice can seem spiny because she knows how she’s perceived. “Publicly, she’s just 48, she is an incredible over-achiever and she’s got a lot of detractors that think she got too far, too quickly,” says a friend and colleague. For each staunch ally who praises her warmth and smarts, she seems to have made an enemy. There are no Rice agnostics.
Her most famous enemy was Richard Holbrooke. Rice saw Holbrooke as meddling on her turf; Holbrooke viewed Rice as an incompetent “pipsqueak,” as one Holbrookian put it. At one meeting, when Holbrooke, then U.N. ambassador, addressed Rice in a way she found belittling, she silently flipped him the bird. Holbrooke reportedly didn’t flinch. (John Prendergast, an Africa policy staffer who was in the room, says, “a lot of people thought it was pretty funny.”) Holbrooke, for his part, couldn’t understand why Rice wouldn’t want his unsolicited tutelage. “She had such a chip on her shoulder,” says a Holbrooke ally.
After Rice’s comments on Benghazi turned into a scandal, other aspects of her record on African affairs came under scrutiny. In a New York Times op-ed, an Eritrean-American activist criticized Rice for being too close to various African “strongmen”—including Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia. Zenawi, for instance, presided over Ethiopia’s economic revival and was a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, but he also massacred protesters and oppressed minorities. When he died in August, Rice delivered a glowing tribute at his funeral, calling him a “true friend” with a “world-class mind.” She was roundly criticized. “I know I’m vilified for having said anything other than, ‘He was a tyrant,’ ... which would’ve been a little awkward, on behalf of the U.S. government and in front of all the mourning Ethiopians,” she says. Prendergast points out that, when Rice arrived at State, many of these leaders had just come to power; it was only later that they became increasingly authoritarian. “It’s strange to politicize something that was so bipartisan,” he says. “There was praise heaped on these people as reformers into the mid-2000s.”
Rice was also lambasted in this magazine for brokering a deal, in 2000, between the democratically elected president of Sierra Leone and vicious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels backed by Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. The deal, which collapsed, granted amnesty to the RUF. (Rice claims the United States opposed the amnesty provision.) Gayle Smith defends this record. “The question was: Do we bring the violence to an end and get some breathing space to structure a peaceful transition?” she says. “Look at where Sierra Leone is today. The war is over. Sierra Leone is moving steadily forward.” For her part, Rice sees this sort of deal-making as essential. “It’s complicated!” she exclaims. “You have to deal with these countries as you find them. We don’t get, in every instance, to have the government of our choosing.”
A similar flexibility can be seen in her approach to the major foreign policy questions of the Obama administration. Rice advocated energetically for U.S. involvement in Libya—because there was a clear path to intervention—but has been reluctant to step into the messier Syrian conflict, where it is unclear what an intervention would achieve or even look like. (The lore of the “three amigas”—Rice, Clinton, and Power as a trio of like-minded idealists—prevailing on Obama to intervene in Libya, says one administration official, is “bullshit” and “offensive to women.”)
Rice is avowedly not an interventionist, but she is not a noninterventionist, either. In this, she is, like many of her generation, and like Obama, a new and not always predictable blend of pragmatist and idealist. She and Obama see a world beset by broad, borderless problems—Terrorism, climate change—that require multilateral cooperation to fix. They are wary of sweeping doctrines and partial to data-driven wonkery.
And yet, despite her bond with Obama, this isn’t the first time Rice has been disappointed by him. She was one of his first high-profile foreign policy staffers during his 2008 campaign—a move that at the time seemed near suicidal, given that most of her peers had signed on with Hillary Clinton. (After serving as a surrogate for John Kerry in 2004, she didn’t want to repeat the experience of working for a candidate who had voted for the Iraq War.) Obama’s foreign policy team assumed they would be running the shop in his administration if he won. But when the election was over, Obama nominated Clinton for secretary of state and appointed James L. Jones as national security advisor, the position Rice had coveted. Like others, Rice was bitter and disappointed, but, ever the loyal soldier, she observed that the only people to get their first choice jobs were Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama himself. (Rice disputed this account, saying, “My preference was what the president wanted me to do.”)
This time, she has been more assertive. In a TV appearance the day she withdrew from consideration, Brian Williams asked her if she had wanted to be secretary of state. “Yes, sure,” she replied, looking deflated. “How can you not want, in my field, to serve at the highest possible level?”
When I spoke to Rice again a few days later, she told me she and Obama had had “a warm conversation,” which made her feel better. It’s not clear when she will ever come so close to “the highest possible level” of foreign policy-making again—although she has not ruled out the prospect. “Who knows? It’s not the only job I’ve ever wanted, including the one I have,” she says. I asked her if, in all of this, there were any takeaways, any lessons learned. “You know, I’m sure the answer to that is yes,” she says cheerfully. “But before I share them with you, I have to process them further for myself. This only happened a few days ago, and I’ve got to thoroughly digest it.”
Julia Ioffe is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 31, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “State of Siege.”