Posts Tagged ‘Washington DC’

Susan Rice is a Better Fit for National Security Adviser than for Secretary of State

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

Today, Barack Obama stopped the music on yet another round of cadre-shifting musical chairs. And this time, the reshuffle left Special Assistant to the President and former journalist Samantha Power in the U.N. ambassador’s chair, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in the national security advisor’s chair, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon with no chair at all. Billed by the Times as “a major shakeup,” this round was wholly predictable.

In fact, it had been scheduled back in December, when Susan Rice, then the favorite to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, pulled out of the running amid a storm of controversy over Benghazi. Back then, Rice, who was essentially eased out of the pre-nomination process by the White House, told me that she had “had a warm conversation” with Obama, which made her feel better. White House advisors were openly talking even then about Rice getting the national security post. In the months since, that chatter, from people in the White House and close to Rice, has only intensified. One source close to Rice told me that they were simply waiting for Donilon to get up out of that chair.

The more ironic twist in this is that this job, now seen by everyone as Rice’s consolation prize, was actually the job she had wanted way back in early 2009. She had been one of the founding members of the Obama campaign’s foreign policy team, having thrown in her lot with him early despite her deep ties to Clintonland and that going with Obama then seemed like a career-ender. As I recount in my December profile of Rice, she was none too pleased.

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.”)

But perhaps it’s not a bad thing that Rice has had to wait four years to get the job she wanted four years ago. Most everyone who has dealt with Rice, while acknowledging her brilliance and awesome work ethic, has noted, as one foreign policy insider told me, “Every job she’s had, she’s had four or five years too soon.” This is more than a sexist remark about a young overachieving black woman. The speed of her ascent is, in part, what has made her the polarizing personality that she is today. For example, when she first worked at the State Department from 1997-2001 as assistant secretary for African affairs, she may have been one of the chief architects of Bill Clinton’s Africa policy, but she had a hell of a time inside the Department.

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.

National security advisor is the perfect job for Rice in large part because she is so much like Obama. Like him, she works with a tight inner circle, and politicking does not come naturally to her, according to her family and colleagues. Like Obama, she prefers the data and wonkery to grand theories. This has made her flexible and pragmatic, and, for her critics, frustratingly hard to predict. (She has been labeled, derogatorily, both an interventionist and a non-interventionist.) In this, she is just like her boss, in large part because she’s helped shape Obama’s foreign policy views. Rice, who has become a friend and a fixture inside the Obamas’ inner sanctum, was advising the President even when he was a Senator. She was also one of the architects of the Phoenix project, a white paper that laid out Obama’s foreign policy views early in the campaign. Given that her views and Obama’s line up in a kind of perfect policy eclipse — heck, she made his views — working together this closely will likely be a breeze.

Susan Rice is a Better Fit for National Security Adviser than for Secretary of [TNR]

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List

Monday, April 15th, 2013

On Friday, the State Department, in conjunction with the Treasury Department, published a list of 18 people who are believed, “based on credible information,” to be in some way responsible for the gruesome death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009. (Over the weekend, Moscow responded with its own list, which includes David Addington, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, and Bush administration lawyer John Yoo.) Why the U.S. government cares enough about the death of a Russian corporate lawyer to publicly forbid these people from entering the U.S., and from owning any real estate or holding any bank accounts here, boils down to the lobbying efforts of one man, Bill Browder.

Browder, whose grandfather Earl was the head of Communist Party USA, rescinded his American citizenship, moved to Britain and then to Moscow, where, in the gangland economy of the 1990s, he made a fortune. When Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Browder became his vocal champion, cheering when oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003. (The move killed all political aspirations in the business community.) In 2005, Browder was shut out of Russia for reasons that still remain unclear, though some observers speculate that it was because he violated the core economic principle of Putin’s Russia and refused to share his profits with Putin.

Shortly afterwards, his lawyer, Magnitsky, began to uncover where Browder’s wealth was going. With the cooperation of the Russian Interior Ministry, tax inspectors, and courts, an organized crime ring was able to reappropriate $230 million dollars. Soon, people like Interior Ministry officials Artem Kuznetsov and Pavel Karpov were living outsize lives, driving luxury vehicles and buying upscale real estate in Moscow, despite their meager official salaries of about $2,000 a month. So were the judges, like Olga Stepanova, who had approved a complex set of transfers of money to various shell companies.

Now, all those inspectors and interior ministry officials and judges find themselves on the list, as do the heads of prisons where Magnitsky spent the last year of his life—after Magnitsky uncovered the scheme, Interior Ministry inspectors had him thrown him in jail. There, screaming with pain, he died, at 37, of untreated pancreatitis. Dmitry Komnov, the head of Butyrka prison, where Magnitsky died handcuffed to a bed, battered, and in a pool of his own urine, is said to have ignored nearly 100 complaints from the prisoner. The judges who prolonged his arrest, as well as the prosecutors who pushed to prolong it, are also on the list.

Almost as soon as Magnitsky died, Browder launched an intensive PR campaign knowing that, despite their officious outrage, the Russian authorities would do nothing. Browder compiled a slick series of videos in English called “The Untouchables,” which detailed how Kuznetsov and Stepanova and Karpov stole his money and killed his lawyer.

Karpov, of course, sued Browder for libel. And here’s where it gets complicated: We don’t know for sure whether Karpov or Kuznetsov or Stepanova did any of the things outlined in “The Untouchables.” The Russian government is made up of many, many vicious men, but Browder is not the most trustworthy—or disinterested—person on the planet. None of his accusations have been proven in a court of a law, and these people, who probably own nothing in the U.S.—Russians prefer to keep their assets in Europe or Cyprus—have become international pariahs. That said, even if they did steal the money and kill Magnitsky, which is highly likely, there is no court in all of Russia which would consider the case, let alone find them guilty. The only person to be tried in all of this, tellingly, is Magnitsky.

The Magnitsky list raises all kinds of questions. Is it America’s place to dispense justice for crimes—alleged crimes—committed elsewhere? Can we publicly shame people who have not been convicted of anything and have no right to appeal the decision? Are these people scapegoats for a Congress that wanted to show itself a defender of human rights? Moreover, why are Congress and the State and Treasury departments all doing such heavy lifting—and further angering Moscow, whose cooperation we need on North Korea, Syria, and Iran—to avenge Browder, who pointedly rescinded his American citizenship and has no plans to ever get it back?

On a purely intellectual level, I think that we should not be wrapped up in this—which has been Obama’s position. But on a gut level, having spent three years in Russia and observing how brutal and cynical and just gut-wrenchingly awful the Russian police and courts are, the list feels like a form of justice. These 18 people, though unconvicted, have become scapegoats for all the evil that the Russian government does to its people. Is it imperfect? Yes. Is it dubious and is it strange that the U.S. is getting involved? Oh, yes.

But, on a purely visceral level, it feels good to say this: The Russian system feels perfectly fine making scapegoats out of dozens of people caught up in the violence of the May 6 protests, violence that the government itself orchestrated in order to sacrifice some scapegoats, terrify the others, and stamp out burgeoning opposition to Putin. (A Russian journalist told me the prosecutors involved in these cases speak openly of the cases’ fabricated, political nature.) The system also feels fine committing all kinds of more minute but equally horrible, demeaning, violent acts on its citizens, day in, day out. So why should America open its banks and its borders to the system’s enforcers?

The problem is, we’re playing by Russia’s rules. And we, thank god, have different rules. May it be ever so.

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List [TNR]

The All-Night King of the Capital

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

On March 13, before heading to Capitol Hill to talk deficit reduction with House Republicans, President Barack Obama, as is his custom before such showdowns, met with his economic team, including National Economic Council head Gene Sperling. The NEC, a Clinton-era innovation, is supposed to serve as an organizing body for the government’s other economic agencies, like Treasury and the budget office. In the hands of Sperling, who worked at the NEC at its inception and has been its director for longer than anyone else, the council has become half think tank, half coach’s corner. Sperling and his team of wonks find economic policies, incubate them, game them out, and present them to the president.

This has made Sperling a ubiquitous figure in the economic policy debates and fiscal crises of recent years. Sperling is the one prepping the president for TV appearances. He’s often dispatched to brief congressional Democrats, as well as the chief policy staffer for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, on the White House line. During the fiscal cliff talks, Vice President Joe Biden was accompanied on his forays to the Senate by Sperling, the human cheat sheet. The only times he hasn’t been in the room is when it was just Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

It’s an unexpected turn, given that Sperling barely made it into the administration in the first place. A veteran of Bill Clinton’s team from the campaign days in Little Rock, Sperling had worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, and when Obama won, Sperling was left without a job in the administration. Larry Summers, an old friend and colleague, was named head of the NEC, and he urged Timothy Geithner, the new treasury secretary, to find Sperling a position. Geithner made him a counselor. For someone with Sperling’s experience, it was, at best, a bit part.

When he started at Treasury, Sperling was temporarily given a suite that had once served as Andrew Johnson’s Oval Office during the months that it took Mary Todd Lincoln to move out of the White House. It was the peak of the financial crisis and Sperling’s deputies slept on the 150-year-old couches. One Saturday morning, an informal tour stumbled upon Sperling and his team cranking out a PowerPoint presentation amidst the flotsam of an all-nighter. “This is a historic office!” the guide exclaimed. “Well, it’s a historic crisis,” Sperling reportedly shot back.

This kind of behavior didn’t immediately endear him to his new bosses. Obama’s inner circle is obsessively orderly. Sperling, as Clintonian as they come, is rambling and intensely inefficient. He is compulsively late; meetings that were scheduled to run for half an hour go three times longer. (“The unit of productivity per unit of work is probably lower” than the ideal, a former staffer told me.) “Gene kind of fit in more on Clinton time,” says a onetime colleague. “This ‘you better be on time’ or ‘the meeting’s going to end in fifteen minutes’ kind of shop is not quite as aligned with his demeanor.” The colleague adds, “It took the Obama people a while to warm up to him.”

But Sperling made himself indispensable, mostly by never going away. “He was constantly over in the West Wing. He hustled,” says Peter Orszag, Obama’s first budget director. “If there wasn’t a spare desk at the White House, he would just sit on the floor and work,” recalls Bob Greenstein, who runs the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “He either didn’t have pride or swallowed his pride and took it on, but … Gene started to become one of the central players even without having the portfolio to be one.”

At Treasury, Sperling pushed progressive policies that, in the middle of a nine-alarm financial meltdown, were not high on the list of priorities. He pushed anyway, “in his usual, relentless way,” says Geithner.

“Gene was holding ten p.m. calls every night on executive compensation at a time when most people were worried, is the financial system going to fail?” says one former staffer. It made Sperling the target of some derision, but he got his way. One of his pet causes became the Small Business Jobs Act, a combination of tax cuts and loans for small enterprises, which Obama signed into law in 2010. In 2009, he also proposed two measures to regulate how companies pay their executives. The extension of unemployment benefits in 2010 was Sperling’s doing. And the American Jobs Act of 2011 (which would have provided relief for Americans hit hardest by the crisis but which ultimately failed to clear Congress) was all Sperling, says Geithner. “He really was the main architect of the American Jobs Act,” Geithner explains. “It was big, and it was designed very creatively.” “Gene was prescient,” says the staffer. “You look back and you say, ‘Geez, this is stuff we’re still getting hammered on, and, were it not for Gene, we would be in a way worse place.’”

Most of the stars of Obama’s founding economic team have now departed, but Sperling is still there. He has managed to outlast them by, well, outlasting them. During the 2008 transition, Summers recalls haggling with Sperling over a tuition tax credit in the planned stimulus package. Sperling wanted to make the credit refundable, while Summers, the man with the real job in theadministration, disagreed: There were simply too many refundable tax credits already. “It was ten at night, and he wouldn’t let me leave!” says Summers.

After over an hour of arguing, Summers declared his decision final and went home. Sperling stayed late into the night drafting the memo that would recommend the best policy to the president. By the time Summers came in the next morning, the tax credit had become refundable. Geithner remembers a furious Summers calling to demand that he rein in his counselor. “‘It’s just unfair, he stays up later!’” Geithner recalls Summers saying. “He would just outlast everybody; he would just fight harder, longer. He just wore everybody down.” (Then–Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had to take Sperling aside to remind him that economic policy isn’t made by staying awake the longest.) “He has an awesome tenacity advocating for people who are vulnerable,” Summers told me. “It’s frustrating for lesser mortals.”

The overwhelming power of this political bulldozer is folded, rather messily, into a five-foot-five frame, with graying hair and a receding hairline. It’s hard to quote Sperling, because he rarely finishes a sentence, or even a clause. His is not one of those brains that produces speech in essayistic paragraphs or recounts events in chronological order. There’s a disarming and goofy informality about him. I arrived for our interview on time—“That was silly of you,” said the West Wing receptionist—and about an hour later, was ushered in to meet Sperling, who was pacing in and out of his office and joshing with his mostly male staffers.

In the boyish world of economic policy, his quirks have made him the target of elaborate pranks. Geithner once sent a friend, posing as a Government Accountability Office inspector, to Sperling’s Treasury office to tell his assistant that the gigantic conference table he used for his crowded, marathon brainstorming sessions was too big and didn’t meet government specifications.

Yet Sperling has also earned his colleagues’ respect, because, as odd as it sounds to say this in Washington, a big part of his drive comes from the fact that he truly believes he is making the world a more just place. Born to a progressive family in Ann Arbor—his father was a lawyer who won several constitutional cases; his mother was an education reformer—Sperling says it was instilled in him that Jews, as people who were once oppressed, had an obligation to ease the burden of others. “He’s clearly attracted to power, to being part of that big process,” says a colleague from the Clinton years. “But a lot of people get inside the room and forget what it’s like outside the room, and he’s never forgotten.” Bob Woodward, in his book on Clinton’s presidency, The Agenda, describes Sperling, then–NEC deputy director, thanking his staff for helping preserve Clinton’s progressive policies during the brutal 1993 budget negotiations. He described the millions of working poor who would be lifted above the poverty line and the millions of children who would get hunger relief. Woodward noted, “Tears came to some eyes.”

But Sperling also thrives on the gritty business of policy-making. He recounts battles over budget line items like a kid telling a spooky story, flashlight propped under his chin. One episode in which his relentlessness paid off came in 1997, during a showdown with Newt Gingrich. Basically, knowing that Gingrich would have a limited appetite for tax credits for the working poor, Sperling and his NEC team figured out a way to combine a child tax credit with the earned income tax credit, boosting the amount of money eligible families would receive. Unfortunately, Gingrich caught on and Erskine Bowles, then the White House chief of staff, was sent to repair the damage. He came back with a counteroffer from Gingrich limiting the stacking of the tax credits. Sperling, armed with a sheaf of charts detailing the impact of every possible outcome, protested: It was going to take serious money out of millions of pockets. Bowles pleaded with him not to scuttle the whole deal over a single policy initiative. But Sperling held the line, and Gingrich, infuriated, walked out. Later, however, he sent over some autographed copies of his latest book, and the two sides started talking again. In the end, Sperling and the working poor got their stackable credits. “Whether you’ve prepared enough to know the impact of every detail and potential option can make the difference between whether you’ve used your spot at the table to help or let down millions of people who are relying on you to look out for them,” Sperling told me.

Back then, Sperling was able to work with Gingrich and the House GOP, even when they bitterly disagreed. During the 1997 budget clashes, Sperling sparred constantly with then–House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich. But after Kasich became governor of Ohio in 2011, he could still call up Sperling, who, with help from Valerie Jarrett, was able to find a way to help Ohio expand Medicaid. “I do not support Obamacare, but I do support the expansion of Medicaid. I wanted to get it done but not under these conditions,” Kasich told me. “We have the same goal. Once you make up your mind that you want to reach a goal, you think of ways to get there.”

Stories like these are rare. Washington and the Republican Party have changed, and Sperling now finds himself dealing with an opponent who cannot be exhausted into submission. During the fiscal cliff talks, Sperling was amazed that House Republicans never made it to the stage of negotiations when both parties, in their best dramatic bargaining voices, announced their final offers, take it or leave it. Instead, the House Republicans just walked away. Here he reprises his familiar joke about Boehner and Eric Cantor: “I wouldn’t want to date them,” Sperling says. “Because they don’t say, ‘Can we talk?’ They don’t say, ‘Can we take a break? Can we see other people? Can we go to a therapist?’ They’re just gone one day!” The only explanation he can come up with is that Republicans don’t want any deal at all, and they never make a final offer for fear that Democrats might actually take it.

Now, Sperling senses a spitefulness within the GOP that wasn’t there even with his arch nemesis, Gingrich. Newt was mean, but he could count votes and he could deliver. He was also willing to work with Democrats on the less flashy stuff. He was vicious in the big fights, yet there were feel-good bipartisan measures, like a veterans’ tax credit, on which they could collaborate. There’s a bemused sense around Sperling’s office that, if Barack Obama is for chocolate cake, the Republicans would be against chocolate cake, too.

It’s all harder these days. Sperling has married and had kids; at 54, the all-nighters take a toll. And, while he may have successfully browbeaten his way to power, he has never truly made it into Obama’s inner circle, the hallowed, tiny space still reserved for political gurus, Chicagoans, and those from the long march of the 2008 campaign. “It definitely bothers him,” says the former colleague.

Still, Sperling has not yet tired of pushing the budgetary rock up the mountain. The fact that he has been able to win before allows him to believe that he might be able to win again. “It would be hard for me to come in every day and work really hard if I weren’t an optimist,” he says. Besides, he is too busy looking for openings and doggedly ramming fixes through to have time to fall into the subjunctive progressive whine: if only. “I feel like, yes, I’d like to be six-one and twenty-six and start for the Pistons, too, but those things aren’t going to happen, and this is the world we live in,” he says brightly. “Sometimes you get up the hill, sometimes you don’t. But you always keep pushing.”

The All-Night King of the Capital [TNR]

Gun Shy

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

For a guy whose professional life involves talking to people about firearms, Wayne LaPierre doesn’t seem especially enthusiastic about either people or firearms. “I knew of no gun interest that he had,” says former National Rifle Association (NRA) chief Warren Cassidy, LaPierre’s boss for a decade. If LaPierre were ever to join one of his colleagues’ hunting trips, says John Aquilino, who used to run the group’s media relations, “I would run like hell.”

Not that LaPierre appeared hungry for company. “Is he a guy who exchanges slaps on the back or glasses of beer?” asks Joseph Tartaro, head of the Second Amendment Foundation, who has worked with LaPierre for 35 years. “No, I don’t think he’s that kind of person.” “He is a shy, wonkish person,” says Richard Feldman, a longtime fellow gun lobbyist. In a memoir, Feldman described his first impression of LaPierre: “This guy doesn’t have what the human resources gurus call ‘people skills.’”

A characterological profile like that doesn’t comport at all with the LaPierre we’ve seen on TV screens since the Newtown tragedy—the from-my-cold-dead-hands gun defender who blames movies and video games, rather than weapons that can shoot dozens of rounds a minute, for all the mass murders that have taken place in the last year. Which leads one to wonder why he’d even want to lead the NRA at all, or why the NRA feels he’s the best man for the on-camera job.

A studious kid from Roanoke, Virginia, LaPierre joined the NRA almost immediately after leaving a political science Ph.D. program at Boston University. Even though he’d gone from academic to operative, he couldn’t shake his campus intellectual vibe. Aquilino remembers once seeing a trail of notebooks and folders in the lobby of the NRA’s old headquarters. “Wayne walked by, didn’t he?” he recalls asking. “He literally had a stream of papers and books and notes that led all the way out to where he got into the cab and headed off to Capitol Hill.”

What LaPierre lacked in professional polish he more than made up for in intensity of belief—something that stood out in lobbying, a calling dominated by schmoozers. But the NRA wasn’t just any lobby. Arriving a year after the so-called Revolt at Cincinnati, when young radicals took over what had been a sleepy sporting organization, LaPierre moved up quickly by taking the most hard-line positions in the room. He fought to undo the biggest federal gun law, pioneered the tactic of shifting the focus away from firearms to a dysfunctional criminal justice system, and thrived as NRA moderates lost internal power struggles.

“It takes a certain amount of chutzpah,” Cassidy told me, “to be a lobbyist and walk into an office where Teddy Kennedy’s in there and he’s had two brothers assassinated, and you’re going to talk pro-gun?” But in 1986, LaPierre had done just that, helping to craft a rollback of a 1968 federal gun control law. The Senate had already passed its version of the bill, and the House debate seemed to be going the NRA’s way when Speaker Tip O’Neill called for a two-week Easter recess. When the House reconvened, an amendment banning new automatic weapons had been added.

Furious NRA ultras wanted to kill the entire bill. But LaPierre called his boss, Warren Cassidy, from Capitol Hill, ready to cut a deal. “I believed in giving an apple to gain the orchard, and he agreed,” Cassidy recalls.

Once the bill passed, however, Cassidy found himself vilified by the NRA rank-and-file, and LaPierre let his shyness kick in at the most useful moment. “I was a little unhappy that Wayne didn’t stand up, accept the fact that he had recommended it to me, … and say that he supported it,” says Cassidy. “There was almost dead silence from him.”

The lesson for LaPierre was that the other side didn’t want apples. They wanted to burn down the orchard. Less than a decade after the deal came the Brady Bill, and now, after Sandy Hook, the NRA again feels besieged. LaPierre’s former colleagues describe a man driven to distraction by what he sees as liberals’ bait-and-switchery in their quest to ban all guns.

At a hunting and conservation gala in Nevada last month, LaPierre talked not about sportsmanship but about Barack Obama’s use of the word “absolutism” in his inaugural address. “Obama wants to turn the idea of ‘absolutism’ into a dirty word, just another word for extremism,” LaPierre said, registering the same note of barely controlled rage he’d hit at his post-Newtown press conference. Over the years, LaPierre has laid out his strident views in half a dozen books, including one treatise about the United Nations’ plot to take away Americans’ guns.

In the meantime, the conservative landscape around the NRA’s circled wagons has been changing. Groups like March for Life and the National Organization for Marriage have hired media-friendly leadership. But if the increasingly powerful political wing of the NRA has no taste for compromise, it has even less for media likability. So LaPierre, his old shyness sublimated into rage, snarls at the cameras on behalf of his organization. “Let me say it this way,” says Feldman. “If it had been me holding the news conference [after Newtown], I’m certain I would’ve used a woman and I would’ve found an educator.” Aquilino puts it differently: “I wanted to bitch slap his advisers,” he says.

But Aquilino and Feldman are moderate dinosaurs compared with LaPierre, and it’s no coincidence that they were forced out with the other moderates decades ago. They may not like his media strategy, but it’s hard to argue with his record. Since 1991, membership has increased by nearly 70 percent. “Usually, his addresses are rather enthusiastically received,” Tartaro says. “Both in substance and defiant style.” In the NRA, he explains, this has helped create “a cult of personality” around LaPierre.

The problem for the organization, though, is that the base can only do so much. Given that half of gun owners don’t think the NRA fully represents their views, that more people dislike the organization’s leadership, and that gun control has become increasingly popular, the NRA might soon need new friends. At which point it might be useful to have a people person at the helm.

Gun Shy [TNR]

John Kerry’s Quiet Campaign Pays Off

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

Just like Susan Rice, Senator John Kerry was one of candidate Barack Obama’s earliest supporters, back when it was risky. The conventional wisdom was that Hillary Clinton was going to win and the people who had failed to join her would be left with tombstones for careers. (“A Clinton never forgets,” the terrified saying went.) Just like Rice, Kerry hoped for a certain, specific prize. For Rice it was national security advisor; for Kerry, secretary of state. And, just like Susan Rice, Kerry saw his dreams dashed when, four Decembers ago, president-elect Barack Obama nominated Clinton to be his secretary of state. Kerry was left in the Senate, where he consoled himself as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rice, too saw her dreams dashed, and the ineffectual James L. Jones got to take a very short stab at national security advisor, while she began serving as U.N. ambassador.

But unlike Rice, who saw her dream job plucked from her yet again this month, Kerry was nominated on Friday by Obama to serve him as secretary of state. What Obama said about him – that Kerry’s “entire life has prepared him for this role” – is also presumably what Obama would have said about Susan Rice, had he ever gotten around to nominating her.

But unlike Kerry and Clinton, Rice is not, and never has been a politician. It is something she has never really been interested in. Though she once harbored the ambition of becoming a senator, by the time college was over the dream was too. Being an elected official – being in politics, rather than policy – was not her thing. She didn’t want to glad hand and beg for money when she could be doing real, concrete things, she recently told me. “I did not have the patience to be a politician,” she said.

The secretary of state’s office, it turns out, is now just another elected office. And Kerry, though he ran the Democratic version of the limp and fumbling Romney campaign in 2004 (when Rice was a policy surrogate for him) is a better politician. He is friends with Senator John McCain, the man who sank Rice. Unlike Rice, who, as Obama’s foreign policy surrogate, slammed McCain in the 2008 race, Kerry has avoided pissing him off. Though McCain campaigned against Kerry, the two became pals through the bond of a shared war. In 1991, when Kerry was asked to chair a committee to investigate the possibility of American servicemen still languishing in Vietnam, the panel faced resistance from nutters. “I’d see the way some of these guys were exploiting the families of those missing in action, and I’d begin to get angry,” McCain told The New Yorker a decade ago, “and John would sense it and put his hand on my arm to calm me down before I’d lose my effectiveness.”

And if, unlike Kerry, Rice is known to her friends as a warm and loyal, genuine to the point of bluntness – a person who, as her high school basketball teammate told me, doesn’t hog the ball or crave the limelight – Kerry has been, almost since birth, a political animal, however clumsily. In that same New Yorker profile of Kerry, he is described as “risible” in his attempts to emulate the man who shared his initials, JFK:

Serious as all this was – he was, for a moment…the most compelling leader of the antiwar movement – there was something uneasy, and perhaps even faintly risible, about it, too, particularly the ill-disguised Kennedy playacting. Even as Kerry delivered his Senate testimony [about his opposition to the Vietnam War], he distorted his natural speech to sound more like that earlier J.F.K.; for example, he occasionally “ahsked” questions. (Kerry had befriended Robert F. Kennedy’s speechwriter Adam Walinsky and consulted him about the speech, bouncing phrases and ideas off the old master.) This sort of thing had been a source of merriment for his classmates ever since prep school, where the joke was that his initials really stood for “Just For Kerry.” He had volunteered to work on Edward Kennedy’s 1962 Senate campaign, had dated Janet Auchincloss, who was Jacqueline Kennedy’s half sister, had hung out at Hammersmith Farm, the Auchincloss family’s estate in Newport, and had gone sailing with the President. A practical joke-one of many, apparently-was played on him in the 1966 Yale yearbook: he was listed as a member of the Young Republicans.

Kerry’s selection is a reminder that the country’s top diplomat is, first and foremost, a politician. He may not be the best politician, but to get the post, it seems, you have to play the game.

John Kerry’s Quiet Campaign Pays Off [TNR]

Susan Rice Isn’t Going Quietly

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

President Barack Obama is expected to appoint Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, on Wednesday as his national security adviser. She spoke with The New Republic late last year about the secretary of state debacle, her future, and why she’s not tortured by Rwanda.

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.”

Susan Rice Isn’t Going Quietly [TNR]