The Rice Question
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
By ROGER COHEN
Published: December 4, 2012 95 Comments
Damon Winter/The New York Times
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WHEN Thomas Pickering took up the No.3 position at the U.S. State Department in 1997, his attention turned to Sudan. The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum had been vacated the previous year after the C.I.A. reported threats, but Pickering wanted the mission reopened in a country that had harbored Osama bin Laden until May 1996 and had more experience than most with violent Islamist extremism.
"The intelligence reports that prompted the closure of the embassy were false and I felt strongly that the embassy should be reopened," Pickering, who has served as ambassador to Nigeria, Israel, India, Russia and the United Nations, told me. "But Susan Rice and Sandy Berger felt strongly it should remain closed and so it did not get reopened for a long while."
Rice, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a leading candidate along with Senator John Kerry to become the next secretary of state, was then assistant secretary for African affairs. She had strong views about Sudan and plenty of reasons to hold them: a terror-sponsoring Sudanese government playing host to anti-American Islamist radicals and engaged in a brutal war with its own citizens in the south.
But while under no illusions about the Sudanese government, Pickering, then under secretary of state for political affairs, saw an opportunity to probe possible shifts in Khartoum. "My view was that we needed to be in contact with governments around the world whatever their characters, and we might change Sudan's attitude through being there," he said. "Susan took a different view."
Today we are at a crucial juncture for American power. President Obama's priority in preserving U.S. influence in the world must be domestic: reviving the economy. He needs a secretary of state able to chart her or his own course at times, with a team-of-rivals independence, and the ability to talk to enemies — Iran being top of that list.
Susan Rice is certainly capable and tough. One person who has spent a lot of time with Rice is struck by her "bristling certitude." A former U.S. ambassador told me, "Rice does not know how to be unblunt." But it is her judgment at critical moments — as displayed on whether to reopen the Sudan embassy or in her handling of the talking points on the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans — that troubles me.
Of course, the ultimate decision on returning U.S. diplomats to Khartoum in 1997 did not lie with Rice. Samuel R. Berger, as national security adviser to President Clinton, had more clout. Still, as the State Department's point person on Africa, her opinion had weight.
Rice's thinking at the time, as described to me by several officials, ran like this: Reopening the U.S. Embassy would have been interpreted by the Sudanese as a reward for good behavior. The United States, she felt, could not send that signal to a country on the terrorist list and involved in the worst human rights abuses. Moreover, nothing she saw at the time suggested that the Sudanese offers of intelligence assistance were serious.
What difference a U.S. decision to engage with Khartoum would have made to intelligence gathering on Al Qaeda, preventing the August 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, averting the mistaken 1998 U.S. cruise-missile attack on a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, and blocking the path to 9/11 is unclear.
On one particular issue — whether in 1996 (when Rice was a senior director for Africa at the National Security Council) Sudan offered to hand over Bin Laden — the 9/11 Commission Report "found no credible evidence that this was so."
"Ambassador Rice believes that it is far better to have a diplomatic presence than not," her spokeswoman, Erin Pelton, said in an e-mail message. "Thus her inherent predisposition is to try to reopen embassies as soon as possible. However, when the U.S. is dealing with countries that are state sponsors of terrorism, that decision cannot be made without regard to the policy signal it sends."
Tim Carney, the ambassador to Sudan at the time, had to leave the country in early 1996 when the embassy was vacated. He believes that the decision not to reopen the following year was disastrous.
"We took our eye off the ball," he told me. "We did not know what was happening in Khartoum, a center of extremist Islam. There was no logic to our policy beyond punishing Khartoum and supporting the rebellion in south Sudan. That the Sudanese could not ensure our security was complete and utter nonsense. In my experience, Rice failed in her judgment. Our interests suffered."
Pickering was in general impressed with Rice, a woman of strong ideas navigating an effective course in many areas of African policy, including Ethiopia and Eritrea. It was only on Sudan, he said, that "we disagreed, and I was not happy."
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Rice, as Sudan suggests, is decisive: She joined the Obama team early in his first campaign when other foreign policy heavyweights backed Hillary Clinton. She is known to be very close to the president. He has made clear that he is prepared to spend significant political capital to defend her if he nominates her for secretary of state. During the first term, foreign policy was very White House-centered. If Obama plans a similar second-term set-up, Rice would be a natural fit.
Over the years I have heard Rice, whom I once met briefly, described as smart, loyal, earnest, combative, certain of her views and not particularly worldly. Her convictions on human rights, shaped through the Rwandan genocide that in turn influenced her views on south Sudan, are passionate.
She famously clashed with the late Richard Holbrooke (and successfully helped keep him from Obama's inner circle); an attempt at a reconciliatory breakfast ended with him giving her his private cellphone number without the gesture being reciprocated.
One senior Obama administration official who was very close to Holbrooke and so, in her words, "got off on the wrong foot with Rice," has become a great admirer. Rice, she argues, has done great things at the United Nations.
"The notion that she is a walkover for Obama is just nonsense," she told me.
According to this official's account, Rice was the "only cabinet member arguing for what we ended up doing in Libya" — a military intervention, backed by a strong U.N. resolution Rice managed to secure, that saved Benghazi and ended with the ousting of Muammar el-Qaddafi.
"She knows how to transcend the limits of American power by knowing the limits of American power," the official said. "She uses all the tools in the toolbox. When the cry goes up in a crisis, 'Save the peacekeepers,' she says, 'No, save the people!"'
Rice has been the object of egregious Republican attacks over her now notorious Benghazi television interviews on Sept. 16. Their attempt to portray her covering up a supposedly premeditated terrorist attack that left four Americans dead does not hold up. My understanding is there is no evidence of premeditation — as in advance planning — or even that the attackers knew that Ambassador Chris Stevens, who happened to be visiting Benghazi, was there. The charged Al Qaeda epithet has been loosely thrown around for a local militant group called Ansar al-Shariah.
Still, Rice's performance raises questions. If the C.I.A. was the main editor of her talking points, and that editing involved the last-minute removal of references to Ansar al-Shariah for fear of tipping them off, would it not have been wise to avoid alluding to the killings as a "horrific incident where some mob was hijacked ultimately by a handful of extremists" — as she said on CNN? And if the C.I.A. knew that two of its own had been killed, why did Rice tell ABC News that "two of the four Americans who were killed were there providing security"?
We now know, thanks to reporting by David Ignatius of The Washington Post among others, that the two C.I.A. agents, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, were killed with mortar fire a full six hours after Stevens in a separate Benghazi location. By the time Rice went on TV, five days had elapsed since the killings, and the C.I.A. had done extensive debriefing.
Why then did Rice not step back, ask questions and hedge her talking points rather than plunge ahead with an account of a spontaneous reaction by "folks in Benghazi," like the one in Cairo, to the anti-Muhammad video? As is now clear, the demonstration never happened.
Stevens is mentioned just once in the various Rice interviews. The killing becomes an almost abstract "violence" committed by "extremists." The video is "hateful," "heinous," "disgusting," "offensive" and "reprehensible." The killing of four Americans is "condemnable," "unacceptable," "reprehensible" and "horrific."
Somewhere in all those adjectives the distinction on the scales of iniquity between mischief and murder is lost.
The U.S. secretary of state needs several skills: leadership, strategic vision, an inner compass, knowledge of the world and judgment. The most effective secretaries — Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker come to mind — have served their presidents, of course, but were also shapers and clinchers of policy.
The recent precedent of Colin Powell's reluctant support for the Iraq war shows how important it can be for the secretary to stand up to the White House — even to the point of resignation, as Cyrus Vance did in 1980 over a disagreement with Jimmy Carter.
In diplomacy the core question is often this: What do I want to get and what do I have to give to get it? Certitudes and bluntness get you only so far. It is less a question of what you know than how curious you are about what you do not.
Susan Rice's story includes several significant achievements. But, from Khartoum to Benghazi, it has been more one of knowing than asking.