REVIEW: Obama's National Security Adviser Recalls a Time When Our Foreign Policy Wasn't Crazy

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Tough Love; My Story of Things Worth Fighting For by Susan Rice

By Paul Markowitz

Susan Rice will always be associated with and remembered for Benghazi.  It is her curse, her life-defining moment and perhaps she hopes with the publication of this book, her redemption.  In this extremely revealing autobiography entitled Tough Love, she puts the Benghazi episode into perspective in a detailed account of her life.  It is a shame that her impressive accomplishments in government service should be so unalterably tarnished by one Sunday in September 2012 when she, as Ambassador to the United Nations, substituted for an exhausted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on all five news programs.

On that Sunday, Rice became the face of Benghazi and the number-one target of right-wing media and politicians in an increasingly partisan Washington.  This episode did not quickly fade, and when Obama won reelection and Hillary Clinton departed the administration, it possibly cost Rice the position she most desired – Secretary of State.

What this autobiography makes clear is that Rice comes from a family of high achievers whose goals always were education and service.  And from the perspective of those goals, Rice performed admirably.  But in the striving for such outcomes, sometimes other things can be sacrificed.  This book is entitled appropriately Tough Love because that was how she was raised by her parents and, whether or not she desired, tough love has become ingrained in her personality.  It was perhaps necessary, or at least very helpful, for an African-American woman to be raised that way to compete in a world that was far from colorblind or free of sexual chauvinism.  And it may have been all of that tough love that led Rice to exude an aura of being cold and aloof and just another government bureaucrat.  This book is her attempt to rectify this image.

Of Jamaican ancestry, Rice was raised in Maine by highly educated and successful parents.  Her father was a professor of Economics who served as a Deputy Director in the US Treasury Department and on the board of the World Bank — and ultimately, appointed by President Carter, on the Federal Reserve.  Rice, in turn, would attend some of the nation’s most prestigious schools — Beauvoir, National Cathedral School for Girls and Stanford — achieving at high levels at each stop on her path.  She would ultimately be a Rhodes Scholar, attaining a Doctorate in International Affairs from Oxford in 1986.

Rice’s commitment to causes and government service were immediately apparent when she volunteered in the Dukakis campaign way back in 1988.  She would then join McKinsey Consulting, marry her college sweetheart, Ian Cameron, a Canadian, and settle down to work in the private sector for two years.  When the first opportunity arose with Bill Clinton’s candidacy, she signed on, and was rewarded after the election with the position of assistant senior director in the National Security Council under Richard Clarke.  She got a hint of her future difficulties with the Blackhawk Down episode in Somalia, the bombing of the embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es-Salaam by Al Queda, and the genocide in Rwanda.  She would also develop a perception of herself by others as “smart, dynamic, decisive, bureaucratically skilled, and tough, but also brash, demanding, impatient, hardheaded, and unafraid of confrontation.” And others viewed her as “imperious, autocratic, micromanaging and intolerant of dissent.” These may be wonderful qualities behind the scenes but do not always translate well to public assessment on news programs.

Rice went on to enlist in the Kerry campaign and to work for the Brookings Institution.  When Hillary Clinton asked Rice to join her campaign, she chose the Barack Obama campaign instead, because of his personality, his optimistic view of the world, the meshing of their values and policy instincts, and the similarities in their backgrounds.

With the election of Barack Obama, Rice was nominated as United Nations Ambassador and unanimously confirmed by the Senate for the second time in her life.  She performed well by all accounts through crises with the Arab Spring, with Libya, Syria and Bin Laden.  Rice perceived herself as a “point guard,” the position she played on the school basketball team, not often the high-scorer but the individual initiating the game plan.  With her talents and tremendous work ethic, all went well until Benghazi when Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. government employees were killed one horrible day.

The backlash from Benghazi badly damaged Rice’s chances of succeeding Hillary Clinton when she left her position as Secretary of State.  Rice accepted the position of National Security Adviser to President Obama, which did not need Senate confirmation.  In that position she dealt with a slew of major crises and diplomatic challenges, including Edward Snowden, Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Egypt’s overthrow of Mohamed Morsi by the military, the Iran nuclear deal, difficult relations with China, the Ebola outbreak in Africa, and her personal highlight, normalization of relations with Cuba.  By most independent analyses, Rice discharged her duties very ably and at the rather early age of 53 left government service.

Tough Love’s publication will likely have an unintended yet timely and educational purpose.  Reading about Rice’s daily and weekly routines, one cannot admire the rigorous schedule she required of herself as National Security advisor to President Obama.  Both she personally and the Administration in general spent enormous hours writing, studying and reading copious reports in an attempt to make the most thoughtful decisions possible.  In this description she inadvertently or intentionally shows the distinction between Obama Administration’s intense preparation behind the scenes and the seemingly “shoot from the hip” and extemporaneous style — to put it generously — of the present administration.